Taking a Stand
Robert Higgs joins us this week to share a few of his reflections on individual liberty, economics, war and peace, and the role of the state in human affairs.
The economic historian and economist Robert Higgs joins us to talk about his new book, Taking a Stand: Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy (2015).
Show Notes and Further Reading
Higgs’s classic work on how government has grown, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987).
We also talk about Higgs’s Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American economy 1865-1914 (1977).
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Robert Higgs, Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute, Editor at Large of The Independent Review and author of many books including the libertarian classic Crisis and Leviathan.
His new book is taking a stand Reflections on Life, Liberty and the Economy. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Robert Higgs: Thank you very much.
Trevor Burrus: So I would like to start with your background and history, how you came to libertarianism both in the ideas and then to become a professional libertarian. Was it something you were just born into or did you have a moment of revelation when you were 18 or something?
Robert Higgs: I would have to speculate on the remote origins of my inclination toward libertarianism. I was not brought up in a political household and was not especially interested in politics even when I was in college although I was interested in certain things at the time.
I think I might actually date my movement in that direction to – when I was 17, I went to the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut and that was a very rigorous place especially in those days. There was constant harassment and physical and psychological pressure being put on people constantly. So the idea was to drive away or break people who couldn’t take the pressure. There was a kind of method in the madness.
But one of the things I learned there is that in a situation like that where there are superiors and inferiors in a chain of command, some of the superiors will abuse their power and I think that is an insight that stuck with me from then on for the rest of my life.
You give people power, even petty power, at your peril and there are people who enjoy abusing those who can be abused. I think that sensibility was important to me as my political thinking developed, which happened during the 1960s. I didn’t fancy myself a libertarian. If anything, when I was in college, I thought of myself as a new leftist, which wasn’t all bad. I was always opposed to the Vietnam War even when most Americans didn’t know it was happening.
So that was a big influence on me too because that taught me that the government is capable of routinely committing horrible crimes for years on end for the slightest political motives and …
Trevor Burrus: Did you read any authors around that time that helped you out?
Robert Higgs: Well, I used to read Ramparts magazine. That was probably the only kind of ideological reading I did consistently. But I dabbled in the leftist books of various sorts. I read some marks and some of the contemporary leftists. I became enamored actually of C. Wright Mills and to this day, I actually defend Mills in many ways. I think Mills was an honest scholar and of course he didn’t have a decent understanding of economics and would have benefited greatly from having one.
But despite that, C. Wright Mills I think continues to be someone one can learn from and particularly his analysis of elites and his book The Power Elite and others. He also wrote a book called The Sociological Imagination, which has some really excellent advice to young scholars. How do you go about your work with integrity? Just how do you do the nuts and bolts of it? What are you trying to do? Which was basically tell the truth.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m curious how this notion that you picked up that people in power will abuse that power led to specifically libertarianism and a skepticism about state power, because one of the things that we often hear especially from those on the left is that that very idea that if people have power, they’re going to abuse it, the big guys are going to beat down the little guys, is what makes them want to embrace the state even more because they see the state as the way to correct that.
The bosses or the warlords or the strongest guy in an archaic world or whatever is going to beat up the little guy or take advantage of them or force them work long hours for low pay. So we need the state to be the protector of the little guy, the protector of the common man.
Robert Higgs: Well, I was not completely immune to those kinds of thoughts by any means. But I was saved from going too far down that path by the fact that I was studying economics. I think if you want to identify one overwhelmingly fatal flaw in the thinking of nearly all leftists, it’s that they don’t have a clue about economics.
The more I learned about economics, especially after I got into graduate school, the more I understood the importance of markets and the benefits of markets and even the relationship between markets and freedom in general.
So by the time I got my PhD which was in 1968, I certainly didn’t consider myself a conservative. Never in my life did I consider myself a conservative. But I still thought of myself as a person more on the left than anywhere else.
But after I went to work as a professor at the University of Washington, they kicked that out of me pretty quickly and at the same time, some time in the first year of my teaching career, I stumbled across Hayek and just loved Hayek. The first thing I read by him was his great 1945 article, The Use of Knowledge in Society and at the time, I thought, well, that’s a really good article. I can use that for my students because there’s no math in it. Everybody can understand this.
But I didn’t really understand it myself because being trained as a neoclassical economist, I was thinking that it’s a lot like what I had learned from Stigler and other Chicagoans about the economics of information.
So I still had a lot of understanding to arrive at. But it led me to have a high opinion of Hayek and so the next thing I did was to read The Constitution of Liberty which to me was a very important book. Now when I look back at it, all I can see are all the concessions that Hayek is making one after another, why some people call him a socialist and all that. But at the time, he seemed like just the perfect classical liberal and he impressed me with his scholarship. That’s what won me over.
Hayek was this great old-fashioned European scholar who knew a lot of languages and he knew about philosophy and law and he wasn’t anything like the economist I had read in my education. He was the real deal as a thinker and so that kind of tipped me over into classical liberalism very early.
From that point on, I think I just gradually evolved in the direction of being a more and more unforgiving classical liberal and late in the 70s, again because of Hayek’s having cited Mises, I read Human Action from cover to cover and I would say that was the only kind of epiphany experience of my whole life as a scholar. That really hit me very hard and actually made my think that I – despite the success I had been having in mainstream economics, it made me think that everything I had written was just garbage.
Trevor Burrus: I want to ask you about one of those things. You wrote about – around that time, because it’s my favorite book of yours. In ’77 it was published. The Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914, which is definitely in that old style economics, full of graphs and numbers. But what were your general theses? What did you generally find in that book?
Robert Higgs: Well, the book aimed to, as it were, change the emphasis. Practically everything written in black history took the view that blacks had been victimized from A to Z at every point in history. It’s almost a case of what my old colleague Morris Morris used to call the “theory of infinite and increasing misery”. They started on slavery and then it gets worse every year not withstanding their emancipation or anything else.
That was just so counterfactual that nobody who respected evidence could accept it and I didn’t when I started reading black history. But what I tried to do in that book, first is a result of some research I did on particular issues about land tenure and land ownership and occupational distributions and migration and so forth.
I built up a body of analysis and a set of facts that led me to believe that not only were blacks not 100 percent victimized but despite everything working against them and there was a tremendous amount working against them, they actually succeeded by virtue of their own efforts and by virtue of the fact that there was competition for their services. That’s why the book is titled Competition and Coercion because competition – and I had leaned this from Gary Becker’s work and other work in just the mainstream economics of discrimination.
Competition is the salvation of oppressed people and that can be seen in any case. Pick your ethnic group and you see the same phenomena operating. If people have something valuable, and certainly black labor was valuable, and some blacks had skills beyond labor power, there’s going to be potential for someone to bid away an exploited worker, workers being paid less than the value of his marginal contribution to output.
So in a way, my book was infused by pursuit of that theme and included ultimately some attempts to estimate what had happened to black income levels between the late 60s and 1860s and World War One approximately. I found that black income on average was growing faster than white income was growing. That was a period of very rapid economic growth in general.
But because blacks had started at such a relatively low level, even if we go 50 years’ time, they’ve only improved from about 25 percent of the white income level to 35 or 40 percent of the white level. But that’s not trivial. That’s a lot of improvement and I collected a lot of evidence that demonstrated just in concrete ways how their living conditions had improved, what kinds of things they might have in their home, what kinds of clothing, food and entertainment and what have you.
They had access to – by the end of that period, typically, that they had not had access to at the beginning of that period. I mean the immediately post-war period was horrible in every way because of all the disruptions of the war and all the destruction that had taken place in the South where 90 percent of the blacks lived and continued to live throughout the next 50 years.
Trevor Burrus: When competition – the market have done – I mean do you think it did better for blacks in that period than attempts by governments to alleviate or fix these problems whether it – so we had the problem with separate but equal for example which was very [Indiscernible] when Plessy v. Ferguson came down. It was – he was saying you had to have segregated railcars. You were allowed to but that meant the rail companies had to have two railcars that were half full as opposed to one that was full, which doesn’t seem to really – the businesses themselves in the market were not as in discrimination as perhaps the government was. Would you agree with that?
Robert Higgs: Oh, yeah, that was another part of my thesis that whereas competition in the market was their salvation to the extent that they had salvation, whenever they encountered the government – in their case it was at the state and especially the local level where they made these encounters. They were totally out of luck then. The only hope they had in their encounters with the government was the protection they could get from a powerful white patron.
So a system developed in the South but particularly in the plantation areas where blacks became beholden to plantation owners or business owners for protection from the state and if they were arrested, their patron would go in and pay their fine. If they were about to sentenced to jail or something, the guy would go in and talk to the judge. In all sorts of ways, there was a trade going on. This was a market phenomenon, this paternalism.
There was a trade going on. The blacks provided faithful services. They didn’t run away the first time they were unhappy about something and in exchange they got the protection from the official discriminators that stood ready to squash any black at any time.
Aaron Ross Powell: How much does competition alleviate these discriminations based on race if I guess the discriminators gained utility from the racism? So they like not hiring blacks or they would – they really don’t want to hire them because they don’t want to be around them or the railcars. Like yes, we could have integrated the railcars but then the white customers might not have been willing to pay as much or wouldn’t have patronized the service.
Robert Higgs: Well, it continues to operate and can operate with great power, so long as there are enough people who value wealth more than the exercise of discrimination. In the South, between the war of – between the states and the First World War, there were plenty of people who preferred wealth to the pleasures of discrimination and especially these wealthy people. The blacks were hated more by working class, lower class whites. Wealthy people didn’t fear blacks. They were so far removed from them by class status and wealth. They didn’t see the blacks as a threat to them at all. They weren’t hankering to hurt blacks in the same way that lower class whites were.
Aaron Ross Powell: It sounds a lot like our – a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric today.
Robert Higgs: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Well, also especially if those lower class whites were unionized and then it got really bad for African-Americans.
Robert Higgs: Yeah. Many of the unions that were formed – and of course in the South, there wasn’t as much unionization as in other parts of the country. But where unions were formed, they usually did – either discriminate against blacks or simply exclude blacks from employment.
So unionization was definitely a negative – big negative factor but not one that affected most black workers because there was not enough unionization in the whole economy.
Trevor Burrus: There was more in the North after the Great Migration. David Bernstein’s Only One Place of Redress is the right book about that.
Robert Higgs: Yes, right.
Trevor Burrus: But I wanted to ask you about another book, the one I had mentioned at the introduction Crisis and Leviathan and probably your most known book. For those who haven’t read it, definitely if you’re a fan of this podcast or libertarianism in general, you have to read it. Can you give us an overview of what you looked for in Crisis and Leviathan? What have you found?
Robert Higgs: Well, that book was aimed at tracking the growth of government, especially the federal government, from the late 19th century up to the time it was written in the 1980s. At that time, the growth of government had become a kind of cottage industry among economists and to some extent among political scientists. People were applying various theories that were lying around in economics or that they devised for themselves to account for why government got so much bigger in that century.
I didn’t have a great interest in that when I first started my career but my colleague Douglas North who was the department chairman and the man who hired me …
Trevor Burrus: And a future Nobel Prize winner. Well, that – future at that time.
Robert Higgs: Doug was viewed as the expert on government economic relations among US economic historians. So he was constantly writing about this and talking about it and we all worked together, the economic historians especially. We read each other’s papers. I was in his office practically every day just to talk about economic history.
So I talk to him a lot and in my own teaching of US economic history courses, I dealt with that subject. But I wasn’t doing research in that area. But I was getting more and more in a sense frustrated by my inability to persuade Doug of certain things, particularly that ideology had been very important in this process, ideological change, and also that the national emergency periods, especially the World Wars, had been critical times for the growth of government.
Neither element at that time had become important in Doug’s thinking. So by the early 80s, by 1980, 1981, I decided, well, I think I will write a book on this and my idea was just to write about basically the two World Wars and the Great Depression because that’s where the main action was for these crises.
But when I started writing and started going around giving talks to other universities, one of the questions that often came up was, “Well, there were crises at earlier times in history. Why didn’t they produce this ratchet effect you are telling us was produced by the wars and the depression?”
That led me to decide that I needed to have a chapter on progressivism because I had come to believe that it was that ideological watershed of progressivism that created a condition wherein there would be a ratchet effect. You have to have people predisposed to think that when there’s an emergency, government should jump in with all four feet and that had not existed in the 19th century. It’s not that nobody wanted government to come in and hand rents to them or do favors for them. That has always been the case. But in the 19th century, there was a kind of dominant ideological belief that government should be limited.
Trevor Burrus: Or at least the federal government or …
Robert Higgs: Certainly the federal government should be but even at the state and local level, there was a belief that politicians were crooked, that they wasted people’s money and that they were always engaging in boondoggles especially after what happened in 1830s, early 1840s with all the bankruptcies of states and their canal projects that went belly up. That led to a bunch of constitutional revisions and so forth.
So from then on especially, there was a lot of thinking among opinion leaders and lawyers and writers and what have you that government was simply a factor that while people didn’t want to get rid of it, they wanted to have government for kind of classical-liberal reasons. It’s not that – it had to be kept small. It had to be limited or it would abuse its powers or waste a lot of people’s money.
Progressivism altered that as the default ideological background condition and as a result, it meant that the next time there was a pretext for a great increase in government action as during World War One, then many people were predisposed to favor. Well, let’s have the government do this. Let’s have it do that.
If we have to have a big bunch of ships built by the government to fight the war, why don’t we have the government build housing for the shipyard workers? It just went on and on. There was always some connection whereby some immediate pretext like fighting the war could be hooked on to some other government activity.
So when your government started buying a lot of certain raw materials to produce ammunitions, well the next thing you know is that it bids up the prices of copper and leather and burlap and various raw commodities. That creates pressure because people who used those commodities in their own businesses, their costs are being driven up. Then that creates pressure for government to use price controls.
So in World War One, you ended up not with comprehensive price controls but with selective price controls on these specific items whose prices had been driven up by government’s own purchases on a large scale. You just see this kind of thing again and again and again. It’s because nobody was stopping to say, “Look, this is a bad idea for government to create a shipping board to regular ocean shipping rates and working conditions of sailors.”
That’s a bad idea. We should let markets take care of those things because by the time this was done in 1916, opinion leaders thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” We’ve got railroad regulation. Ship, that’s very similar. Now shipping rates have been driven up because the British Navy is driven from the seas and it’s very expensive for Americans to ship goods to Latin America or to bring raw materials from there and other places.
So people who had to incur shipping rates were screaming for some kind of relief and …
Trevor Burrus: And on and on and on.
Robert Higgs: It just went on and on. Everyone had a similar element like that which required that there be a predisposition to use government in a way that it had never been used before.
Aaron Ross Powell: So how intentional was this ratchet effect in the sense that – so the way you’ve described it, it sounds almost like government grew but people didn’t set out to grow government. They might have a predisposition to say like, “OK, so government undertook this activity and that activity had negative effects somewhere else.
So well, we screwed that area up. So we should go and fix it,” and you had people who naturally thought that government would be better at fixing it than markets. So that’s what we ought to do. Then that lead to this ongoing ratchet. But was there an intentional element going on behind it, either like within government, like people saying here, “This crisis is an opportunity to grow our power or the power of government. Let’s do it,” or people outside of government saying this crisis and the things that’s leading to our way for me to use government to benefit myself?
Robert Higgs: Both. There was some of each and even when people entered into these expanded government activities, as a simple reaction to the immediate problem at hand, they quickly realized that they might have a good deal here. So later on, they defended its continuation or perhaps even its enlargement. You had for example, after the War Industries Board, set priorities for purchases of different materials the government was using so that the government’s contractors got the top claim on copper or steel or lead or whatever it was.
That system of priority was something that a lot of businesses liked. They thought after the war, “Oh, we should keep this. We should have somebody regulating industry because before we had all these dreadful price wars and companies with …”
Trevor Burrus: Destructive competition.
Robert Higgs: Yeah, destructive competition.
Trevor Burrus: I made some air quotes on that …
Robert Higgs: Always a lot of big businesses complaining about destructive competition because the incumbents like things the way they are. They want to be the producers. They don’t want to have to be fighting off entrants all the time. So if there’s a regulator, particularly if they’re the guys doing the regulation, they can take care of this. They can normalize everything and they can get rid of uncertainty and destructive competition and all the rest of it.
Trevor Burrus: That’s sort of one of you – the sort of – I think at that point with Crisis and Leviathan, which is really interesting because the first line of the book – now this is – maybe this was because it was Oxford Press or – but the first line of the book in part one is – this is interesting for now because you kind of went into sociology of the – I mean that’s a lot of what you kind of ended up doing, how – what is the mindset of people in government? What are the mindsets of people who work with government? What are they trying to achieve? But I think maybe that started with Crisis and Leviathan. But the first line is, “We must have government. Only government can form certain tasks successfully,” which is an interesting – I’m not sure if you believe that now. You did seemingly.
Robert Higgs: Well, when I wrote that, I believed it in the usual way that it was taken. I still believe we had to have government – as I say government as we know it and the government says they really are in the world coercive, imposed.
Trevor Burrus: Mean.
Robert Higgs: You don’t have any choice about these governments. We’re the government and you’re not. Do what we say. I continue to believe we must have government to do a variety of things, to keep social order, to suppress criminal behavior and to adjudicate disputes and for a variety of reasons. But I do not believe that we must have government as we know it. We don’t have to have coercive, imposed government, and I’m satisfied at this point that it is quite possible to have non-coercive names of carrying out all the functions that really need to be carried out, to have an orderly and prosperous society.
That conclusion was a long time coming for me. When I wrote Crisis and Leviathan, I was still very much a classical liberal, still very much a neo-classical economist and those things gradually changed. I became more radical over time.
Aaron Ross Powell: Did that shift result from just a lessening of practical concerns? So when you say wrote that sentence, the thought that we must have government as we know it was because the alternative, while it would be better from a moral perspective, might not work or did you have a shift in moral reasoning that just said that I now think that it’s totally morally impermissible to have this sort of course of government?
Robert Higgs: Well, when I wrote that line, I wasn’t even thinking about moral issues. I was thinking as an economist, I was thinking what will work and like almost everybody else, I thought anarchy won’t work. Obviously that’s out and I followed up that sentence in the same paragraph with a wonderful quotation from Mises who’s explaining that government is not a bad thing. It’s actually the most wonderful institution human beings have ever devised!
That’s the opposite of what I now believe that – what caused my thinking to change over the years was not so much learning more about the literature of anarchy or a changing moral position although I didn’t make moral changes. But it was simply that the more I learned about government as we know it, government as it actually is, the more horrified I became to see government as it really is with your eyes open.
It’s something that I found appalling. It just seemed more and more outrageous to me that these people who had a sign over their house saying “government” were permitted, allowed, to commit criminal acts right and left. Their very existence depended on criminality and everybody just took this for granted as if there’s no problem here. Not only is there no problem but as Mises said, it’s the greatest thing that ever happened.
So eventually the moral outrage and the analytical change of understanding that I acquired joined forces to me – to bring me to a position where I’m just astonished that people put up with what they put up with.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, you – shortly before we recorded this, you were giving a talk here at Cato on your book and during that, you mentioned that things are actually a lot worse, so things in Washington, things with the government are a lot worse than most people even think and most people tend to think no matter what – where they are in the political spectrum that things aren’t great.
Robert Higgs: Yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: So how are they worse? And then relatedly when you talk about the people seemed to be OK with this, how much do people know about how bad these things are?
Robert Higgs: Well, I think they’re very much worse than most people think or understand. As I say, if you had a microphone in everybody’s office, the way you had in Nixon’s office, this would be a revolutionary news item for people. If they knew what these guys are actually saying and doing – there’s one thing I’ve always loved about the FBI, which is their sting operations against politicians. They set these up so elaborately, so that they get just ironclad film, audio, documentary evidence, so that they get these bastards just nailed to the wall. They can’t possibly say they’re innocent and I just love it when these guys are revealed.
But the trouble is you can’t do a sting on every single politician on earth and as for the second part of your question, I think most people know practically nothing about what really goes on in politics. They watch the news. They hear politicians give speeches. That’s about the extent of it. There are very few people who actually study and scrutinize politics at a level where they would begin to think about these things and even those who do usually are overwhelmed by ideology.
They start playing with one team or the other. There is a lot of partisan political affiliation that muddies everybody’s water. They begin to think, yeah, these progressive politicians are all sleazebags. But our guys are upright Christian, God-fearing, mother-loving, apple-pie-eating – or vice versa.
That’s just a total waste. That just means your understanding is hopeless when you sign up to play for one of these teams. You don’t understand that they’re both committing the same crimes. They just have a different set of clients.
Aaron Ross Powell: Are the crimes limited to – I mean you talked a lot about politicians and politicians and all this stuff, but one of the things you learn spending time in Washington is how much of the federal government is really out of the politician’s hands. It’s the bureaucrats, the people and the agencies who dominate so much. Are things as bad there as well?
Robert Higgs: I think the politicians themselves are the most crooked but …
Trevor Burrus: Are there any good politicians at this point? Do you think that it’s possible that anyone got here clean? You got to DC, you got to federal office.
Robert Higgs: It’s conceivable. I’m not going to name any names.
Trevor Burrus: But then the bureaucrats are another level too.
Robert Higgs: The problem I think is a little different in the bureaucracy. The problem there is that these bureaucratic kingpins have a lot of discretion and they have tremendous power and they’re pretty much entrenched. It’s – you got to do some pretty outstanding stuff to get yourself removed from power.
So they’re pretty confident they can wheel and deal as they like and of course some of them get bought with cash in a plain brown wrapper too. But that I don’t think is the typical way in which they’re corrupted. They’re corrupted by just the ease with which they’re able to exercise power and abuse their power and by being able to think of themselves as really being right, of not eve committing crimes. But of doing good things for people, if not all people, at least the right people.
I think they’re corrupted by hubris more than they’re corrupted by cash. The politicians of course, they’re not immune from hubris by any means, but they’re constantly fighting to collect money to run the next election and that means cash is really terribly importable to them in a way that it’s not important to the bureaucrats.
Trevor Burrus: Well, how culpable are – should we regard people in government? I mean of any sort, whether it’s a DMV person up to a DEA and then up to someone who files papers at the EPA. So we regard all of them as somewhat culpable in this endeavor or do some of them get a free pass of some sort?
Robert Higgs: Well, yeah, in a philosophical level, if you work for government, you’re culpable. You’re living on stolen property. But I don’t see any point in saying the janitor who cleans the offices in the Department of Agriculture is a big criminal and of course a lot of the clerks and workday drones in these bureaus, they don’t have anything much to do with policy at all. They’re just shuffling papers.
That doesn’t mean they don’t abuse people they run into. Even the guy at the welfare office, he can give some grief to the poor SOBs that go in there, trying to get a month’s worth of groceries.
But at the same time, they don’t make policy. They don’t set any rates or rules about how they’re going to deal with people. It’s the policy makers, people who have some influence on making policy.
I think too that a lot of the lawyers that work in the government are – basically their job is to put a legal gloss, to throw a legal garment over whatever kind of crimes their bosses want to commit. That to me is really despicable because in theory, a lawyer’s highest obligation is to the law and to truth. They all swear to this. But I think that’s kind of laughing stuff. If you had 10 lawyers in a bar, they would get a good laugh out of that.
Certainly if they had anything to do with the criminal justice system where things work almost in the opposite way [Indiscernible]. It’s like built into the very tissue of what they do every day. But I think the culpability question is not an easy one. It’s not a black and white thing and it’s possible that there are even people at very high levels who aren’t – who don’t deserve to be indicted.
Sometimes they do the honest thing. They resign. In World War One when Colonel House and company were wheedling the president toward the engagement in the war, Williams Jennings Bryan the secretary of state and this – all this pro-British policy and all this Anglophile thinking and he was appalled by that because in his circles, these Brits were not good guys. The whole idea that the US is going to end up going to save their cookies seemed wrong to him.
It wasn’t that he was pro-German. He just was pro-peace and he didn’t see a good reason for the US to engage in that war and he was right. But it turned out that he couldn’t prevail. So he resigned. You notice that it’s extremely rare that anybody in government in a high level ever resigns. People can do this, that and be called to all kinds of names and whatever. They just stick it out. It’s as if they can’t stand the idea of living without that power.
Aaron Ross Powell: On that matter of peace you write in the book, although I generally issue quarrels with fellow libertarians over doctrinal matters, I draw the line at the question of war and peace.
Robert Higgs: Yes, because war is, as I call it, the master key. It unlocks every door where your liberties are protected. It opens everything up to state dictation. It reduces everyone to the status of potential slavery. The fact that millions of men were forced into the military, the state told them you have a choice. You can go to prison where you will be horribly abused or you can go into the army. Take your pick.
On top of that of course, there were all the propaganda, pressures and the pressures just – you know, their friends and relatives and what have you because the country has been bamboozled into this kind of belief in the nation state over time. So it’s not just that the state is out there driving people to do what it wants. There are plenty of social pressures too. I remember when I was young and thinking about, “What if I get drafted?” I certainly wasn’t going to go in Vietnam. I wasn’t going to go into the army that was fighting Vietnam either.
So I had to decide and I decided I would leave the country if they tried to draft me. But the main thing I thought about at the time was what effect that would have on my parents because I knew that would have a very devastating effect on them. Even though they weren’t political people, that was a very unsavory thing. They would have to face their own friends and neighbors. Their son is a draft dodger.
So these pressures are real. There is a society out there that by a whole variety of means has been molded into suitable raw material for the rulers and they don’t know it. They think this is all how it ought to be and it’s just unfortunate that people don’t have greater awareness of the reality of what’s being done to them by people who have no right to do it.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is war ever OK though? If people have say an individual right to self-defense, don’t we have a right to collective defense?
Robert Higgs: You would if ever individual had power to decide, if he would participate in that collective effort or not? Then it would be fine. But it’s never that way. It’s never that way. It wasn’t even back in the colonial days when there was militia. You didn’t have a choice. Everybody was in the militia if you were able-bodied.
So I think the problem when people try to equate the right of self-defense was what governments do when they go to wars. They’re just not the same thing. If you attack me and I fight back, I’m exercising my right of self-defense. But if some guy is running around in Yemen and trying to overthrow the government and the US government sends a drone over there and kills him and 50 other people at the same time, that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with my self-defense or anybody else’s. That’s just murder.
There’s no other gloss you can put on it. People accept this because they haven’t thought about it and in fact, many people really don’t have a well-developed sense of moral thinking or moral reasoning. They just do what is customary or what they’ve been told or what they’re used to. Habit is the worst thing in the world for those of us who try to build a free society because the thing that keeps most people in line is just habit. It has always been this way and they would have to break away from the way things normally are, get out of line, get themselves in trouble, make enemies. Well, no wonder there are so few mavericks. It’s costly to oppose statism in a world infused by statism.
Trevor Burrus: A lot of people read your new book especially like the first section, first 80 pages or so, and also maybe listening to this podcast and they think, “Oh, well, Professor Higgs is pretty angry.” You also have a great essay in here called The Power of the State versus the Power of Love. So is it to accurate to say you are angry in some way or are you more just trying to implore people toward a friendly – toward love rather than force?
Robert Higgs: Well, both actually. I am angry at the state. I think it consists of a lot of people who are committing crimes. They’re hurting a lot of people by doing so. When you think about what a great world it could be, if we didn’t have these crimes being committed, if we didn’t have for example so many government measures to hold down the poor, minimum wage laws, the licensing regulations.
Trevor Burrus: Public schools.
Robert Higgs: Public schools. It just goes on and on and on. We really couldn’t even have a poverty problem in a country like the United States if it weren’t for public policy. There are too many ways in which people could get out of poverty and would, but not only do these policies keep them in poverty, but these policies corrupt them. They make them think they deserve handouts. They make them think that people owe them something.
These are the kinds of beliefs that say a hundred years ago or more when immigrants came to the United States, they don’t come here thinking, “Oh, the people that are over there owe me something.” They just wanted a chance to work.
Trevor Burrus: Do you ever think that you might be utopian about what freedom can do versus government? I think that there still would be problems in freedom. People would still be poor. We would have to give an actual accurate assessment …
Robert Higgs: No, no. I’m not utopian. I know that any world with human beings in it will have trouble. OK? That’s the nature of the raw material. Some of us are no damn good. OK? So I certainly do not believe that an abolition of government as we know it would bring about some kind of heaven on earth.
But it would be vastly better than the world we live in infused by state power and the way in which problems were dealt with would be very different too. There wouldn’t be for example people punished for victimless crimes and if you look at our world, punishment of people for victimless crimes is almost like name of the game.
Jeff Tucker wrote a piece just a few days ago about what goes on in traffic court every day. It’s just robbery. You bring in there all these people one after another who haven’t hurt anyone. They haven’t violated anyone’s just rights and they’re just being ripped off altogether thousands of dollars. What happened out there by St. Louis and that suburb and it was very much tied to the fact that those little suburban governments live off stealing from people through giving traffic tickets to people, hauling them into court or all kinds of stupid pretext.
So the robber barons are not things that go back to the Middle Ages. We have robber barons all over this country. Whole local governments, whole police departments live off robbery, outright robbery. It’s not just the fact that all taxation is robbery. It’s blatant robbery. People talk about, oh, in Mexico, if a policeman stops you, he’s looking for a bribe. Well, sometimes he is. But what do you think is happening here? It’s a much more elaborate system of extracting your money. It’s no more decent in any way than that poor, ill-paid Mexican cops who wants 100 pesos to let you off.
But people don’t understand it. They accept that it’s the law. It’s the rules, blah, blah, blah. That’s crap! It’s robbery. That’s all it is and I wish people would come to see it as that more than they do because this is the kind of thing where something might be done. This isn’t like you have to overthrow congress or replace the president or anything. It’s just you got to go to city council and say, “You bastards better stop this or we’re voting your butts all out of office!”
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the really distressing things about government and particularly powerful governments and big governments is – I mean we can go to the city council and we can tell them we will vote them out. But we’re often in the minority and even if we can get a group of people together, these things are so big and so entrenched that the amount of control, the amount of say we have over it is vanishingly small.
What can – those of us who recognize the immorality of a lot of this and see the system for what it really is, is there anything that we can do in our daily lives to move the needle, to shift things more towards not that utopian world but the – a better world?
Robert Higgs: I think there are a lot of things that can be done. Many things can be done in the form of opting out or relocating yourself, adjusting somehow how you live, where you live, what you do. People don’t very often at least think about their lives in that way. They don’t think – when they think, “Where will I live? What job will I pursue?” They don’t think about, “Well, how exposed am I to the evils of the state?”
But when you can get them to think in that way, they often find there are a lot of things they can do to evade, avoid, lower the risks. When they do that, they in a sense become believers who can sort of talk to their friends, relatives and neighbors and say, “Look, you don’t have to put up with this stuff.” You make a missionary out of him as it were, as soon as they discover that they can escape some of the abuse.
I know friends. I have good personal friends who they don’t get involved in libertarian activities or groups or anything like that, but they live their lives in a way that is constructed to maximize their actual freedom and avoid government abuse, to make their tax bill as small as possible, to make their exposure to government regulation as small as possible, to do all sorts of things that are within the grasp of most people if they thought about working toward that.
So there are ways of opting out. I mentioned in my talk earlier today home schooling, which has been tremendously successful in removing about 10 percent of the children in the country from the horrors of the government schools and there’s plenty more room for home schooling or for private schooling.
I think a lot of people are dissuaded from doing home schooling or private schooling by the expenses and by the time demands and by feeling they’re not qualified. But I think if you can get people to thinking about just how bad it’s going to be in the public schools – now the public schools are like prisons, literally.
Trevor Burrus: In some areas.
Robert Higgs: You go through metal detectors. There are security people in the corridors. Would you want to send your child to a place like that every day? It’s like, OK, Sonny, it’s time to put your six hours in the city jail. Off you go. Have a good day! I don’t know why people do this except that it’s just inconvenient to pursue the alternative. But the truth is when you get started, you get a critical mass. It’s not as hard as you think. We’ve home schooled our kids, my step kids that I have, and they – the home schoolers get together and cooperate with each other in so many ways that people aren’t aware of, to give certain classes to the kids, to give activities to them, to really flesh out a nice educational experience. It’s not that every day they’re – you got to have six hours of class time as it were with mom or dad sitting there working with the kids.
There’s a lot of online stuff you can do now, tremendous resources for that, CDs. You know, you name it. It’s just all sorts of things that home schoolers can do and when they do that, they take their children out of the control of these wicked school authorities who are in some ways the most irresponsible people I can think of. They’re just sick with the idea of following rules no matter how much sense they make. A lot of them are just stupidly P.C. They ram ideas about the environment and all sorts of discrimination and what have you down the throats of the kids and of course kids are not as easy as people might think. If a kid has a brain in his head by the time he’s eight, he begins to see what’s being done to him to some extent. But not all of them. A lot of them just end up being affected by what’s done to them in the government schools.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that makes me think of the question that reflects a bunch of these ideas which is, “What is worse, competent government, highly competent government that’s really good at accomplishing its goals no matter how nefarious they might be or incompetent government, ones that fail in the process of trying to accomplish their goals?”
Robert Higgs: Well, certainly incompetence is better in many departments of government. Unfortunately in some cases where you really would love incompetence like the police, the incompetence becomes fatal. They send a SWAT team to the wrong address very often for example. So you really wish they had been more competent at a time like that even though I don’t want them going to anybody’s address to serve a more …
Trevor Burrus: But you would like the NSA to be less competent …
Robert Higgs: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I would like them to be utterly incompetent. They just hear static when they plug in, if it were up to me.
Trevor Burrus: So do you think things are – do you have any optimism at all or do you think things are just kind of circling the drain?
Robert Higgs: Well, there’s always hope. Sometimes people listen to me and they say, “This guy has no hope.” That’s not true. There’s always hope. We’re alive. We still got brains in our head. We may wake up and do something someday. It’s not inconceivable. But what are the odds? I think the odds are not good. One gentleman in my talk today was pointing out all the positive trends about life expectancies and wealth and what have you.
There’s no [Indiscernible] that the United States and other advanced welfare-warfare states are wealthy, people have a high level of living. They’re constantly entertained. They have marvelous electronic toys. Everybody from four years old up has a smart phone now and so yeah, it looks wonderful in some ways.
But on the other hand, it’s a police state and the police state part of it gets worse every day. It doesn’t seem to matter what anybody says about it. It’s as if all the protests is just part of the ritual dance. You even have members of congress. They stand up and they make a speech or they go in and introduce a bill or something. But what is different? What has the NSA stopped doing? I think it started doing a lot more in the past 10 years than it stopped doing.
So I really do believe that there’s a part of government and this is the heart of it, the war, intelligence, foreign policy part, that really runs on its own power, that it’s really not under effective control. I wonder sometimes even how much control the president of the United States has over some of these people. Because what can he do? He issues an order to the head of the NSA. How is he going to know if that order was really carried out? Of course the guy will say, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” But maybe he won’t do anything.
How is the president going to know? He’s not a techno genius. He has got other things to do. He has got a golf game.
Trevor Burrus: So things could get better but likely not.
Robert Higgs: Well, that’s the short term view I hold in this country. There are parts of the world where things are getting better in most ways and that’s glorious. The fact that China went from being a centrally-planned communist country to being a semi-open-fascist country, that was a huge improvement for hundreds of millions of people. That one change probably did more to improve human well-being than any other single thing we can think of.
Look at just the numbers of people that benefited. People don’t have famines anymore in China. What a glorious thing! They used to starve by the scores of millions when they had a famine. They had them every once in a while. Same in India. India is not having famines anymore. They’ve got the technology to avoid that. So yeah, things are getting much better in some ways.
Has anybody created a free society? Hell no! Not even close. Are most of the advanced countries moving in the wrong direction? Yes! Their freedoms are diminishing rather than increasing. It’s not that it’s all one way. There’s a mixed picture all the time. Some things go worse. Some things get better. But you have to evaluate the overall picture and you have to decide what’s important to you. Is it important that you have more electronic toys or is it important that you not have cops breaking into people’s houses with hand grenades to serve warrants?
So to me, I don’t want to live in a police state and if I have to go somewhere and live in relatively primitive conditions, that’s an improvement for me. I don’t think many people would like it. They wouldn’t consider that improvement. I’m sorry. They don’t because that’s the crux of the thing. At ground level, it’s the fact that people don’t love liberty very much and when they have to pay a price for it, they won’t pay much. Until that changes, it’s hard to see how we can ever have much freedom.
Trevor Burrus: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.