essays

May 1, 1978

Reversing the Rachet of Government

“If liberty is our first political value, tolerance must be our second.”

A Time for Truth, by William E. Simon. McGraw-Hill, 248 pp., $12.50.

 

In a recent column in The New York Times entitled “Republican Proxy War” (April 10, 1978), William Safire reported on some of the battles being waged today within the GOP. The struggle for control of the Republican Party is being waged by combatants like Senator Clifford Case (R.-N.J.), Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger on the one side, and younger, aggressive Rightists on the other, like former Reagan aide Jeff Bell (who is challenging Case in the New Jersey primary), and Congressman Jack Kemp (R.-N.Y.).

One of the differences between these younger conservatives and those in the older generations is that these younger conservatives are far more “ideological,” and are willing to ignore cries of “party unity” in their attempts to seize control of the Republican Party and to smash the moldy liberalism which has dominated both parties since the New Deal. Another difference is their search for a new agenda or program with which to appeal to the American people over the heads of the dominant opinion-molders. Thus, as William Safire wrote, “the ‘new right’ is likely to be carrying around new books as different and as provocative as Irving Kristol’s Two Cheers for Capitalism, Martin Anderson’s Welfare, Robert Bork’s The Anti-Trust Paradox, and William Simon’s A Time For Truth.”

A few years ago Alan Otten of the Wall Street Journal reported a “dearth of creative new ideas coming from the entire liberal intellectual community,” an absence which has become increasingly apparent over the past few years, as liberal programs have increasingly been perceived as failures. While there is hardly a new enlightenment taking place on the Right, it should still be said that those books are all symbols of at least a growing concern with new ideas, new approaches, new policies. There is in fact quite an upheaval taking place in the Right wing, both inside and outside the Republican Party, as we find a growing number of battles and skirmishes taking place between various “factions” and “camps”: the Buckley Right, Richard Viguerie’s “New Right,” the Neoconservatives, ad nausaum. The lines are not clearly drawn, and no stable leadership has arisen. Nor has any systematic agenda been agreed on, or strategy. Having pretty much given up the idea of starting a new conservative party, the battle is focused largely on two elements of an overall approach: promotion, by any means possible, of ideological allies, and a grass-roots fight for control of the Republican Party.

William Simon has dived into the middle of all this with his book A Time For Truth. His associates know that Simon is a politically ambitious man, and would like a shot at the presidency. (After all, he served as secretary of the treasury under both Nixon and Ford.) This book is really an attempt to elevate himself to a position of leadership within the Republican Party. All the books which Safire mentioned in his column are being widely read and noted by the brighter elements in the ranks of both the conservative movement and the Republican Party; but of all the authors, only Simon is ambitious enough to attempt to parlay this tough-minded book into a position of political leadership.

Clearly he is tapping into a widespread disaffection with big government in this book, and just as clearly he is trying to portray himself as having the stuff to launch a crusade to roll back government power. But portraying is one thing; being is another. A few months back, Tom Bethell wrote in an issue of Harper’s that “if the climate of opinion with respect to government continues to change, we may soon be on the lookout for someone who can solve the greatest puzzle of representative democracy: how to reverse the ratchet of government.” Simon thinks he has the key: to launch a “powerful counterintellegentsia … to challenge our ruling ‘new class’ opinion makers—an intelligentsia dedicated consciously to the political value of individual liberty, above all, which understands its relationship to meritocracy, and which is consciously aware of the value of private property and the free market in generating innovative technology, jobs, and wealth. Such an intelligentsia exists, and an audience awaits its views.”

This counterrevolution is to be led by three broad groups.

The oldest, of course, is the educated pro-free enterprise conservative movement. The most brilliant and dedicated intellectuals of the right are classical liberals, adherents of limited government and a minimally regulated free market economy, and are totally aware of the unbreakable link between political and economic liberty. These people have built themselves a fortress in the heart of academe, particularly in the economics departments of the University of Chicago and UCLA. There are many hundreds of such scholars, European and American—Nobel Laureates Hayek and Friedman being the most visible in the mass media since their awards—and they are the authors of a constantly growing body of theoretical free market literature. They have kept the torch of economic liberty burning and are passing it on to younger generations.

The younger generations tend, in fact, to be more militant about the free market than their elders, a good many today being laissez-faire purists. The most publicly visible are the young libertarians. In 1975 one of their number, Robert Nozick, a philosophy professor at Harvard, won a National Book Award for an exposition of libertarian theory and a challenge to egalitarianism, which was discussed in the major opinion journals in the land. Nozick sent a ripple of laughter through the world of political theorists with his witty defense of freedom for capitalist acts between consenting adults’ … .

A tiny fragment of the American body politic, the libertarians are so well-furnished with academic degrees and is intense in their dedication to freedom that their impact on the intellectual world transcends their numbers. Like all radical scholarly groups, they serve as a goad to their elders and attract the liberty-loving young. Utopian, idealistic, and immoderate—to them ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’—they are the connecting link between America’s free enterprise past and future and refute the canard that economic liberty is a value to rich old men alone.

Ignore for the moment the fact that Simon places libertarianism as some kind of minority subset of the conservative movement, which it most assuredly is not. The second group of his counterrevolutionary trilogy is the neoconservatives. These are disillusioned New Dealers who are beginning to question collectivist, egalitarian and regulatory dogmas. Simon does not endorse them totally, however:

The liberals and laborites in this ‘neoconservative’ group are still interventionists to a degree that I myself do not endorse, but they have grasped the importance of capitalism, are battling some of the despotic aspects of egalitarianism, and can be counted as allies on certain crucial fronts of the struggle for individual liberty.

The third element, then:

And the third broad movement in opposition to prevailing trends is to be found in the world of business itself, where the most intelligent and courageous leaders have faced the fact that they must fight for free enterprise before it is too late.

Simon is fairly tough in handling this group, too:

But there is one condition that must be met: they must practice [free enterprise]. They cannot be hypocritical leeches on the state, who mouth platitudes about the free enterprise system, then come hat in hand to Washington. This practice totally destroys their credibility as spokesmen for a principled cause.

Thus, Simon sees the possibility of organizing a counterrevolutionary movement out of these broad groups, which would have the financial and intellectual resources to challenge the shacklers and plunderers of the American economy. He sees himself as a leader of these forces, and A Time For Truth as a weapon.

There is no doubt but that the book is meant to be taken seriously: Simon enlisted the substantial aid of journalist Edith Efron in writing the book, and it is adorned with both a preface by Milton Friedman and a foreword by F. A. Hayek. “This is a brilliant and passionate book by a brilliant and passionate man,” writes Prof. Friedman. “It is a profound analysis of the suicidal course on which our beloved country is proceeding—so clearly and so simply written, with such eloquence, such obvious sincerity, such a broad base in recorded fact and personal experience, that it is hard to see how any reasonable man who wishes his fellow citizens well can fail to be persuaded by it.”

Friedrich Hayek recounts his own reaction to the manuscript: “I dipped into it one morning and at once got so fascinated that I could not stop until I had finished it… . If this is the lesson which a first-class young brain has learned from bitter experience, we may hope to find in him a leader of opinion such as the United States and the Western world much need.”

With two such endorsements, both from Nobel laureautes in economics, Simon feels ready to take on the dominant intelligentsia in America today, that group which Irving Kristol dubbed “The New Class,” and which is equated with what Robert Nisbet called “the New Despotism.” Kristol is quoted at length on the new class:

This ‘new class’ is not easily defined but may be vaguely described. It consists of a goodly proportion of those college-educated people whose skills and vocations proliferate in a ‘postindustrial society.’ … We are talking about scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communications industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of government bureaucracy, etc., etc… . Members of the ‘new class’ do not ‘control’ the media, they are the media—just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system and much else… .

 

There are many powerful passages in this book, but there are also deep flaws, passages of dizzying stupidity.

 

What does this ‘new class’ want, and why should it be so hostile to the business community? Well, one should understand that members of this class are ‘idealistic,’ in the 1960’s sense of that term—i.e. they are not much interested in money but are keenly interested in power. Power for what? The power to shape our civilization—a power which, in a capitalist system, is supposed to reside in the free market. This ‘new class’ wants to see much of this power redistributed to government, where they will then have a major say in how it is exercised.

Simon takes off the gloves in dealing with these bastards: They combine a “morbid economic ignorance with a driving power lust,” he charges, and combine “hostility to democracy with the illusion that [they] speak for the People.” Moreover, “those intellectuals, in Europe, as in the United States, are still in the grip of Lippmann’s ‘heresy’ of the 1930’s—the belief that ‘there are no limits to man’s capacity to govern others and that therefore no limitation ought to be imposed on government.’ They have lost the knowledge ‘born of long ages of suffering under man’s dominion over man … that the exercise of unlimited power by men with limited minds and self-regarding prejudices is soon oppressive, reactionary and corrupt.’ They have lost this knowledge because today—although in their collectivist ‘idealism’ they cannot grasp this—they are the reactionary, corrupt oppressors.”

They do understand one thing perfectly, however: that the greatest threat to their power is a free market economy which sets stringent limits on the state. A significant move to free the market would decimate the ‘New Despotism,’ and the ruling group would try to destroy any politician who proposed such a course. The powerful political intelligentsia that determines the trends in social democratic nations today is as stubborn and ruthless a ruling elite as any in history and worse than many because it is possessed of delusions of grandeur.

There are many such powerful passages as this one in this book, and one is tempted to go on quoting forever. There are even brilliant strokes throwing the concept of “humanitarianism” back in the faces of statist intellectuals, bold proclamations that is truly liberty which is progressive, and state regimentation reactionary. Its polemics, slogans, and propagandistic devices often reach grand-scale crescendos. But there are also deep flaws in the book, almost structural flaws in Simon’s—and Efron’s—thinking. There are passages of dizzying stupidity and ignorance, for example, which detract from the overall virtues of the book in ways which are tragically unnecessary. There is the statement that “the Democratic Party is the primary vehicle of economic authoritarianism” and a belief that the Republican Party really, down deep, is “the Liberty Party.” What nonsense this is! Which party was the party of high protective tariffs, the party which launched the Civil War, the party of massive grants of subsidies and special privileges to business, the party which hurled the first major regulatory agencies at us—those alphabet agencies which today are choking the American people? Which party was the party of jingoism and imperialism, the party that brought us the Spanish-American War and its legacy, the party that saw itself supporting the Federal Reserve System with its continual monetary exploitation of the American people, the party of the income tax, of prohibition, of the earliest drug laws? And which the party of immigration restriction, the party of agricultural parities, the party of railroad subsidies, the party that launched public education, the party responsible for the Great Depression through its continual credit expansion during the 1920s? The Republican Party has brought us wars and depressions, subsidies and tariffs, censorship and the income tax, public education and the drug laws. This is the party of liberty? This is “A Time For Truth”?

But indeed, that line unfortunately is just the beginning; an all-consuming historical ignorance permeates this book, beginning the the unshakable right-wing view that all evil began with FDR and the New Deal. That fiction I consider, after the historical work which has been done during the last 20 years, pathetic jibberish of the worst sort. Moreover, Simon, while recognizing that business had perhaps some role in launching state regimentation of the American economy—in itself a rather ludicrous understatement—paints a picture, in the main, of the “businessman-as-victim.” Now this is a collectivist, holistic half-truth. Simon claims that this view of businessman as user of the state for his own benefit is a contemporary liberal dogma. But has he really never read Milton Friedman on this, let alone Murray Rothbard or any of several dozen other thinkers? Some businessmen are clearly victims; others are clearly victimizers, numbering among themselves some of the most prominent big businesses around. Simon makes his case by shifting from a concern with liberty to a concern with cash: Businessmen are financially hurting, so how could they be running things? I shall not attempt to unravel the problems involved in this canard here. But if we are concerned with liberty, then all we have to do is go down the list of every tyrannical move the government has taken during the last two hundred years, from the very first pieces of legislation—a tax on whiskey to cripple small farmers, the first protective tariff, and Alexander Hamilton’s “financial program” with its national bank—to see the heavy hand of major businessmen at every turn.

It is businessmen which were the first class to use the state apparatus as a tool to exploit others. When the “new class” came along, it began to take over an apparatus set up by business for its own ends. Efron and Simon ought to read Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism, or Railroads and Regulation, or Weinstein’s The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, or Rothbard and Radosh’s A New History of Leviathan—or any one of nearly a hundred books on these subjects. Businessmen have not been fumbling around, moaning and wringing their hands in anguish as state power has been trampling on the liberties of the American people. They have been twisting the knife!

Now, no one should be stupid enough to claim that all businessmen have had this attitude, but surely most major businessmen clearly have. Theodore N. Vail, president of AT&T in the early part of this century, put the point bluntly regarding his own area: “We believe in and were the first to advocate state or government control and regulation of public utilities.” And it was not out of some confused sense of “egalitarianism,” either. Major businessmen like J. P. Morgan have been in the forefront of long-run planning to increase state power for business purposes. When business screams for liberty, it is all too often only for its own allies, for itself.

Moreover, something ought to be said about the bogey of “egalitarianism”—which Simon rightly attacks, but then goes further to make it the main force behind the growth of statism. That is simply not the case. The main forces behind the growth of the state are, firstly, war, and militarism—look at any almanac to see when government spending and power shot up most—and secondly, the desire to use state power as a means of gaining wealth and stomping on competitors, something business has been in the forefront of, but which has, by now, reached the stage of being part of mass psychology.

 

An all-consuming historical ignorance permeates this book, like the view that all evil began with FDR and the New Deal.

 

One final objection to the book should be made. It completely avoids the issue of foreign policy—except for a complaint about the allegedly shrinking defense budget (Simon confuses a decline as a percent of the total budget with a real decline)—and it nearly completely sidesteps the issue of civil liberties. Let us skip over the issue of foreign policy; it may be a key, but LR readers have seen that point demonstrated at length over the past eight months. It is the issue of civil liberties that bothers me.

And with good reason. For Simon’s most fundamental policy prescription is this:

The overriding principle to be revived in American political life is that which sets individual liberty as the highest political value—that value to which all other values are subordinate and that which, at all times, is to be given the highest ‘priority’ in policy discussions.

The readers of Libertarian Review will, no doubt, find this noble and inspiring, expecting William E. Simon, given the title of the book and his tough-minded approach, to mean what he says. Don’t hold your breath. Remember that Simon identifies himself as a conservative. That says a lot. And we must remember, alas, that deep in the psyche of the American Right lies a profound and bottomless intellectual and moral cowardice.

There is not a word in this book, which claims to love individual liberty, about abolishing our victimless crime laws. Not a word. It might be answered that that is too much to expect of a former treasury secretary who has, admittedly, made great strides in the direction of a consistent vision of liberty. I think it must be demanded of such a person, as proof of his sincerity. To claim that such is too much to expect or demand from a man who would posture as a crusading political leader, is to place oneself in the camp of hypocritical, cowardly scoundrels.

The problem is not merely that he largely skirts the issue, but that in the only passage in the book where freedom of lifestyles is even raised, it is in the typical right-wing manner: scapegoating, smearing, slandering, snarling at the disgusting deviants, and bemoaning “license.” I shall quote the passages only in part, and, in honor of Edith Efron, its most flamboyant adherent, I shall call its central theme “The Zoo Motif”:

It is often said by people who receive warnings about declining freedom in America that such a charge is preposterous, that there is no freer society on earth. That is true in one sense, but it is immensely deceptive. There has never been such freedom before in America to speak freely, indeed, to wag one’s tongue in the hearing of an entire nation; to publish anything and everything, including the most scurrilous gossip; to take drugs and to prate to children about their alleged pleasures; to progagandize for bizarre sexual practices; to watch bloody and obscene entertainment… . The strange fact is that Americans are constitutionally free today to do almost everything that our cultural tradition has previously held to be immoral or obscene, while the police powers of the state are being invoked : against almost every aspect of the productive process. Even more precisely, Americans today are left free by the state to engage in activities that could, for the most part, be carried on just as readily in prisons, insane asylums, and zoos.

There is more, but I shall spare the reader. I shall also spare the reader the words that come to mind when I think about the author of those words, who ought to be sorely ashamed.

The fact of the matter—for those concerned with facts and for whom personal prejudices do not get in the way of political and cultural analysis—is that a great many people today are experimenting with different “lifestyles.” And there are objective, factual reasons why this should be the case, why such activity should “arrive” at this particular time and place. This is nothing to fear. (Get that through your heads, conservatives!)

But the key point is that these people, too, face the same general economic situation as everyone else. For the most part, they participate in the money economy, they are taxed to death on every level, they are often the owners of small businesses that are being sent to the wall, inflation is wrecking their savings and is wreaking havoc with their standards of living. They, too, must be enlisted in the battle against state oppression, particularly since they contain in their camp some of the most talented, creative people who exist today.

In short, the Zoo Motif must be smashed to bits. Scapegoating must come to an end. If liberty is our first political value, tolerance must be our second.

But we should not give up on the book and its author. The chapters on the New York City fiscal crisis and the energy crunch are terrific. There are brilliant passages in the rest, too, from the symbolic little listing of regulatory contradictions and oppressions, to the demonstration—quite unique—that so-called “welfare” programs really have little to do with the poor, and much to do with one portion of the middle class subsidizing another. I have given only hints of its overall power and sweep, and concentrated on its shortcomings because this is really the only publication in America today where a libertarian critique can be expected. By the “new class,” it will be torn to shreds—for the wrong reasons

My advice to libertarians is to buy and read this book, and to learn from it: It is a beautiful exercise in propaganda, deals with libertarianism fairly, and treats Hayek and Friedman with the respect they ought to command everywhere. It is a portrait of our “national crises” that is largely true to life. It is a courageous, but not fully consistent, statement by a man who may be a major figure in years to come. It is a spirited and passionate book.

Yet by leaving out both foreign policy and civil liberties, Simon has at best raised the flag of liberty to half-mast.

My only question, when all is said and done, is, can William E. Simon live up to it? We can only watch and wait. But there is one piece of his advice that we can follow immediately: “Support only those [political] candidates who will not waver on the issue of liberty.” For us, at least, that means the Libertarian Party, and the libertarian movement which is its backbone. There is no real alternative.