The Market and Freedom

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In Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century, we find a chapter on “The Culture of Sanity.” He begins this chapter with the following observation: “The only reason we are able to examine our own and other history in an open way is that the culture which makes such thinking possible has, so far, survived and prevailed.” He goes on to say that freedom developed spontaneously through the emergence of a vibrant market society in medieval England. “There was much mobility, personal rather than family ownership, much trade and nonagricultural production,” wrote Conquest. “Thus … what may be seen as a market economy was long in existence and largely prevalent, and was the basis from which the Anglo-Industrial Revolution could emerge.”

Today it is supposed by leading politicians that the freedom to buy and sell has little to do with freedom of speech, or political freedom. But if Conquest’s sources are right, political freedom is the fruit of economic freedom. Of course, the localized nature of government in Britain following the collapse of the Roman Empire resulted in anarchy and feudal warfare. But it also had the beneficial result of benign neglect. Without a regularized imperial bureaucracy and taxes, without regulations and impositions, the free exchange of goods and services fostered a new kind of culture and new attitudes. The Kings of England did not possess a regular army or bureaucracy with which to oppress the people. Attempts to tax unjustly, without the consent of the governed, often resulted in disobedience and the denial of revenue. “Generally speaking,” wrote Conquest, “great and successful rulers in England were those, like Edward I and Edward III, who worked within the laws and customs and sought cooperation rather than submission from the representatives of the cities and counties.”

According to Conquest, in the course of English history, whenever monarchs (like Edward II, Richard III and James II) “sought to extend the power of the state at the expense of the community” there occurred a reaction; that is to say, a counterrevolution in favor of restoring freedom. We should also recall the case of King John, who was compelled to sign the Magna Carta; and the case of George III, who failed to suppress the English colonies in America.

Thus it was culture that repeatedly asserted itself against the tyrannical aspirations of half-a-dozen monarchs in the course of nine centuries. It was a culture born spontaneously out of the free market. This is what Conquest called “the culture of sanity.” Thus he wrote, “Cultures have had, as they still have, great intrinsic momenta, and they cannot be rapidly turned in new directions.” Whereas, civil culture may take decades or centuries to emerge from a “despotic environment,” attempts to tyrannize the culture of freedom are likely to meet with a violent rebuke – as English history shows again and again.

However, in the last 100 years we have seen tremendous cultural changes. Perhaps the most devastating is our growing economic dependence on the state. And this dependence creates two problems: first, that the state should enervate the people and destroy the people’s self-sufficiency; second, that the state should neglect its national security function in favor of a nanny function (that is, of feeding, housing and clothing millions of citizens who no longer feed, house or clothe themselves). The more the state enervates the citizen body, the more the state budget is shifted from defense to welfare. As dependence on the state grows, the more sluggish the economy becomes. In time we find that revenue collection drops off while an ever-increasing sum must go to sustaining the cycle of dependence thus created. Under this dynamic, the budget for national security must necessarily shrink at an accelerating rate.

Therefore, economic contraction coincides with a national security contraction. Thus we read stories such as, “Cyber Threat Looms” where we learn that Retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, a former Director of the NSA, is frustrated that so little has been done to protect our vulnerable infrastructure. And now we read of an Iranian cyber-attack against U.S. banks and other private companies, which are now experiencing a “tidal surge” of cyber-attacks (see “Companies are afraid to talk about cyber-attacks”). What does the government say? The Secretary of Homeland Security covers herself in glory by admitting that a catastrophic cyber-attack may be imminent. And why should this be so? What has she been doing these past four years?

While North Korea threatens war in the Far East and China develops long-range strategic missile trains, the United States continues to disarm. While Iran builds its first nuclear weapon, the U.S. Navy prepares to fire thousands of military workers. While the Russian government warns Israel and the U.S. against a preemptive strike on Iran, the new U.S. Defense Secretary designate backtracks before a Senate committee on his anti-nuclear views (knowing that his actual views might sink his nomination). (The would-be Defense Secretary is found to have called for the defunding of Radio Free Europe and serves on the board of the Ploughshares Fund, a Soros-financed group that supports U.S. nuclear disarmament.) And to top it off, while a Chinese general tells his troops to “prepare for combat” against japan the U.S. military focusses on the politically correct objective of integrating women into combat.

If the culture of freedom was shaped by the market, what culture is being shaped by dependence on government? It is not even a culture that properly defends its own interests. It is a culture that has been changed through political interference (especially in education, law and the family). Instead of being an economic culture, based on the free market, we have become a political culture where everything is politicized – the market included. According to Conquest, “All the major troubles the world has had in our era have been caused by people who have let politics become a mania. The politician should be a servant and should play a limited role.” But now, it seems, we are the servants and government is the master.

This past week I spoke with two Venezuelan politicians about the rumored death of President Hugo Chavez. One of them was hopeful that the country would recover its freedom. The other politician feared that Venezuela was now a Cuban socialist colony. Towards the end of our conversation he said, “The same thing that began here in Venezuela more than a decade ago has also started in the United States – a creeping government control over things.”

Creeping government control will not produce or sustain a “culture of sanity.” If Robert Conquest is right, it will give us the exact opposite. The insanity of state socialism signifies the degradation of all culture. But this degradation will not last forever. As Gustave Le Bon once wrote, “But as its promises are necessarily in vain … its impotence will become glaring to every eye in the very hour of its triumph, and it will have as its enemies the very multitudes it had seduced….”

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About JR Nyquist