Liberty Matters

Subverting the Prince

Steve's and George's comments bring me back to an earlier point I made about ideas, interests, and ruling elites (or class analysis).
Ruling elites believe certain things about themselves, the "public interest," and the world around them. They also disseminate or encourage others to believe some of these ideas (usually via the public school system) in order to remain in power and to further their own interests. These include the ideas that the elites have a divine right to rule, have greater wisdom and knowledge with which to make decisions, have a mandate from the people, won the war or revolution which brought them to power, etc.
Ordinary people for the most part accept these ideas and resist attempts to change their minds because they think different ideas and practices based on those new ideas will harm their interests. They may believe that the gods will be angry with them, or that they are too ignorant and stupid to run the country, or that they participated in the election which elected the ruler.
Thus I think we can identify three cracks in the ideological rock into which classical liberals can insert their crowbar of criticism in order to split it open:
The first crack is the ideas which are held by the rulers themselves. We need to sow the seeds of FUD -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt -- in their minds concerning their ideology of power. They need to be afraid of being resisted, opposed, or thrown out of office. They need to fear being ignored (what I call the "La Boétie Effect" after the 16th-century French magistrate),[126] to be uncertain that their orders will be obeyed (from below) or carried out (by disgruntled government officials), and there must be growing self-doubt within the ruling elite itself about their legitimacy to rule and their ability to run or plan the economy. This ideological "rot from within" occurs rarely, but it has happened before in revolutionary moments when the ruling elite seemed to evaporate before people's eyes (such as in France in the early phase of the revolution, and the fall of the Soviet Union).
The second ideological crack we should work on are the ideas held by ordinary people about the State and the ruling elite.
We need to encourage the demythologizing of the state and the rulers in the eyes of ordinary people ("the Emperor has no clothes" strategy). This includes fostering a loss of respect for the elites as special, pointing out that they consist in flawed individuals with interests and weaknesses like everyone else, and teaching that they are not as smart as they and other people think. In other words, we want many more "Watergate moments," which did so much to expose the criminal activities and lies of the Nixon administration.
We also want to encourage the loss of belief in the idea of the "two moralities," namely, that there is one set of moral principles for the rulers and another one for the ruled. We need to use harsh language, to call a spade a spade," to identify taxation, regulation, and subsidies as the plunder and theft they in fact are. We want to shake faith in the rulers’ ability to carry out what they have promised, in other words to make the "efficiency argument" (or "inefficiency argument" in this case) as best we can. Steve Davies’s strong version of this view is that it is impossible for anybody to plan an economy on a large scale, not just a particular ruler. We want people to realize that they have been duped by the elites about the general interest and that the elites in fact cloak their own personal or class interests behind self-serving arguments, or sophisms.
As you might be able to tell from the language I have used here ("two moralities," "harsh language," "plunder," "dupes," "sophisms") this is the strategy adopted by Bastiat in the 1840s with his wonderful series of essays known as the Economic Sophisms, written to expose the false and sophistical arguments used by the elites in favor of protection and subsidies for industry.[127]
The third crack corresponds to ordinary people’s ideas about how the free market functions.
We need to persuade people that what they do in their ordinary lives (producing, trading, saving, consuming) is moral and just, and leads to personal fulfillment and prosperity for them and their families. We need to show them that there are already existing, efficient, cheap, and plausible voluntary market alternatives to state-run and state-regulated activities. We need to encourage people to go about their business and wherever possible to ignore government regulations, taxes, and prohibitions, and that to do this is moral and just.
To further these three goals, several types of intellectual activity need to be undertaken. They are listed in descending order according to the structure of production of ideas:
  • support for the development of economic and political theory to continue to undermine the ruling elites and their advisors about the efficacy and morality of what they are doing;
  • writing muckraking biographies and histories of the ruling elites, key leaders, and the most important institutions of the state to expose their corruption, incompetence, and failure;
  • fostering a critical press not blinded by the aura of the ruler, a press that asks penetrating questions about what the state is doing and that is willing to report this to the public;
  • develop a core group of politicians in Congress who are willing to hold the wielders of power to account with enquiries, threats of impeachment, and the withholding of funding for government projects, etc.;
  • mount legal challenges to the most outrageous violations of citizens' liberties;
  • spread a better understanding among ordinary people of how politics and free markets really work;
  • encourage the development of a popular culture which is willing to use what Bastiat termed "the sting of ridicule" in order to mock and belittle wielders of power and what they do; and
  • encourage people either to refuse to participate in civic rituals in which the state or the ruler/leader is honored or venerated, or to adopt the age-old practice of the Catholic Church: taking existing pagan holidays and turn them to their own purposes.
Regarding the latter, I have in mind here the British celebration of Guy Fawkes Day on November 5,[128]  when people were encouraged by the Protestant British state to create effigies of the Catholic would-be assassin and burn them in public squares. Over the years the people have taken matters into their own hands and changed this ritual into burning effigies of their most disliked political leaders. I'm sure some creative people could turn the American Presidents Day into a similar pro-liberty ritual, perhaps using Ivan Eland's book Recarving Mount Rushmore with its list of good and bad presidents as guidance.[129]
[126.] Étienne de la La Boétie, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, trans. Harry Kurz (1942). </titles/2250>.
[127.] Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms, trans. Arthur Goddard, introduction by Henry Hazlitt (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996). </titles/276>.
[128.] James Sharpe, Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (London: Profile Books, 2006).
[129.] Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty (Updated Edition) (Oakland, CA.: The Independent Institute, 2014).