Leonard E. Read, the founding and long-serving first president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), once told a story about when he first met the famous Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. It was in 1940, shortly after Mises had arrived in the United States from war-torn Europe. Read had invited Mises to Los Angeles to deliver a talk to the local Chamber of Commerce.
Later that evening, Read hosted a dinner party at his home with several prominent free-market-oriented economists and California businessmen. Toward the end of the conversations about collectivist trends in America, one of the guests asked Mises, “Now, let us suppose you were the dictator of these United States. What would you do?”
Read said, “Quick as a flash came the reply, ‘I would abdicate!’” Read went on to say that in his mind, Mises’s response was an instance of the wisdom of how little any one of us knows to presume to plan — “dictate” — what others in society should do and how they should live.
Political paternalists want to run your life
Alas, we are surrounded with far too many people who presume to do just that. These political paternalists and social engineers arrogantly advocate the use of political power to tell us how to live, where to work (and at what prices or wages), with whom to interact (and in which ways), and to design our wider societal future. Virtually none of them seem to have any doubts or hesitation that they know what is better for all of us than we do.
They know the salaries we should earn. They know the work environment that is right for us. They know the language people should use in communicating with each other. They know the forms and types of human associations that are to be prohibited or insisted on. They know what we should buy and the prices we should pay. They know the medical care, the schooling, the retirement plans that each of us should have. They know whose incomes are “too high” and whose are “too low.” They know the cars we should drive, the houses we should live in, the kind of communities in which we should reside.
Reflect on practically anything in your private life or your social interactions, and the political paternalists know all about it better than you. This applies to both modern American liberals and conservatives. The types and content of the governmental rules, regulations, restrictions, and controls might vary, or the emphasis may differ, but almost all these modern liberals and conservatives have “a plan” that amounts to them playing dictator over your life and everyone else’s.
Many Americans want to change the constitutional order
Why do so many Americans accept this state of affairs and offer so little resistance? I would suggest that far too many of our fellow citizens have little or no idea about what a free society could or should look like or appreciate the value of such a free society now or in the future. That seems a stark statement, but let us look at the recent public opinion poll results from a survey of Democrats and Republicans by Hart Research Associates that was reported in The New Republic online (April 14, 2022).
While a majority of Democrats (52 percent) and Republicans (56 percent) said that the American constitutional order was basically sound and needed only minor changes to improve it, 48 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans called for a complete or major change in the U.S. constitutional system. When asked what “democracy” means to them, only 47 percent of Republicans said “individual rights and liberties are protected,” and that number dropped to 28 percent among Democrats. On the other hand, nearly 40 percent of Democrats said democracy means straight majority rule, implying little regard for threats to individual liberty from majority decision-making.
Part of the federalist system under the American Constitution is the Electoral College, which is meant to prevent domination by a few heavily populated areas over the rest of the country in presidential elections. The same applies to the U.S. Senate, with two senators for each state, while the membership in the House of Representatives reflects the population sizes of the various states. But in this opinion survey, 84 percent of Democrats think presidents should be elected by simple national majorities. Almost half of Republicans in the poll (48 percent) agreed with them. Also, 41 percent of Democrats thought it was a bad thing (anti-democratic) that each state has two senators regardless of population size. Nearly 30 percent of Republicans said the same.
Many Americans want more paternalism and less freedom
The survey also asked people if they thought the federal government should have the power to “get things done and solve problems.” Seventy-three percent of Democrats said yes, and 45 percent of Republicans agreed. Not surprisingly, therefore, only 27 percent of Democrats supported limiting the powers of the federal government; a small majority of Republicans (55 percent) wanted to limit the federal government. When asked whether government mandates for vaccinations and mask-wearing were threats to democracy in America, 80 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans said no.
Asked if people should have “the personal freedom to do as they please,” merely 21 percent of Democrats thought that would be a good idea, while only 38 percent of Republicans thought greater personal freedom would be desirable. In line with this, 53 percent of Republicans wanted political leaders in power reflecting and implicitly imposing their values on others. About 40 percent of Democrats agreed. Clearly not liking some recent Supreme Court decisions, 72 percent of Democrats said the number of justices on the court should be increased. Thirty percent of Republicans also wanted this. This used to be called “court packing.”
Summing up part of this, the survey asked Democrats how they view Republicans, as political opponents who they disagreed with (57 percent) or as political enemies who are a threat to their values and way of life (43 percent). Fifty-three percent of Republicans said they viewed Democrats as political opponents, and 47 percent of them considered Democrats as enemies of their values and way of life. Asked the hypothetical question of where they would want to live if the United States were to be divided into two separate nations, 85 percent of Democrats would want to live in a “blue” America, and 89 percent of Republicans would prefer to live in the “red” part of America.
Of course, it is always necessary to be leery of public-opinion polls, since the answers closely depend on the way the questions are framed and how the selection has been made as to whom will be polled. Plus, the survey was done for The New Republic, which has its own “progressive” political axes to grind. Nonetheless, it does give a certain snapshot of attitudes about politics and the role of government in America today.
Not only political and ideological elites want more paternalism
One thing that especially stands out, in my view, is that political paternalism and social engineering is not merely a governmental power grab by an ideological elite against the wishes and beliefs of the American people. Far too many of our fellow Americans want that paternalism and social engineering, as reflected in the answers to a good number of these survey questions.
The responses to the questions about whether the federal government should have the power to “get things done and solve problems” and whether individuals should have more “personal freedom to do as they please” are really two sides of the same coin. If the federal government is to have the authority to “get things done,” individuals cannot be allowed “to do as they please.” In the political arena, getting things done means government telling people what to do and how to do it. The government takes on the role of social planner, and the people must be the obedient responders to the plans, regulations, and restrictions imposed on them.
A lot of Americans, in other words, want that dictator over them to tell them how to live, work, earn, and act. Of course, ask any of those who responded in this way to the survey questions as to what they expect any political paternalist or social engineer to actually implement, and they would assume, no doubt, that the political agenda imposed would be the one they wanted.
Each wants more paternalism for what they want
This is seen in the answers to the question about whether you see those in the other major political party as merely an “opponent” or as an “enemy” threatening your values and way of life. Either my values and way of life are imposed on others, or theirs are imposed on me. It is my preferred paternalist dictators setting government policy, or it is theirs. Government is getting things done the way I want them to be done, or government is using its authority to get things done the way they want.
Either way, one of us is made to live in ways and with values with which we may partly or totally disagree. It is not too surprising, therefore, that within this political mindset and governmental system, Democrats would prefer to live in a “blue” America and Republicans would want to live in a “red” America. Otherwise, you are not only under the control of a political opponent but what amounts to your fundamental ideological enemy. If democratic government is presumed inescapably to be a form of paternalist dictatorship, then better mine than yours.
It is often said that a paternalist elite wants to undermine the traditional American constitutional order precisely because it limits their ability to control, plan, and direct the society. Federalism, with its various elements of checks and balances to restrain and inhibit undo concentration and abuse of political power, had long been considered essential as a means to prevent government from abridging or abolishing the liberty of individuals. Yet, this survey highlights that a noticeable number of our fellow Americans want to weaken or abolish those constitutional barriers precisely so government will have more centralized and arbitrary authority to “get things done.”
Democratic despotism in place of constitutional limits
What many of those Democrats and Republicans seem to want is a greater “democratic despotism.” Eliminating the Electoral College in presidential elections would make selection of who occupies the White House, with all the executive power that the office holds, a matter of a simple national majority. A handful of more “blue” paternalist states would be able to easily impose their will on all others in the country. This preference was held not only by a large majority of the Democrats in the survey but also by almost half of the Republicans. A lot of Americans think that sheer numbers at the voting booth should decide what freedoms people will be left with, under a government expected to “get things done.”
This is shown in the desire by over 70 percent of Democrats to pack the Supreme Court with additional members so as to ensure that the “biases” among Supreme Court justices can be more in line with a presumed majority of the electorate and its government representatives. Not a rule of law based on general principles of individual rights and limited government but rather the unrestrained democratic “will of the people” should determine what the court decides to be the law of the land.
De Tocqueville’s warning of tyranny with a democratic face
The French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville explained the nature of such a democratic despotism in a famous passage in his Democracy in America, vol. 2 (1840):
After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.
Elites have influenced people, but people now want paternalism
It might be said that while many in society may express a desire for or an acceptance of government as political paternalist and social engineer, this sentiment is still the product of a political elite that greatly influences the government educational system through which most in the society pass. It also includes an elite in the information media that espouses the same democratic despotism and which is supported by ideologically motivated and various special interest groups who want their ideas and policies imposed on everyone.
All this is most certainly true. Many, if not most, people in society accept the prevailing ideas in the country into which they have been born and which have enveloped the culture and politics of the communities in which they live. There is a reason that some people who appear to break out of this mold are call “free thinkers,” and very often not as a compliment. They swim against the stream of the ideas and ideals of the society in which they find themselves. That is why frequently they get labelled as “fringe” or “extremist” or “radical.”
When Ludwig von Mises responded to that questioner at Leonard Read’s dinner party who asked what he would do if he was “dictator” of the United States, that he, Mises, would “abdicate,” that was a fringe or extremist or radical answer. After all, if “I” or “you” were in absolute power, wouldn’t it be possible to, finally, set everything right? Cut government down to size; free people from the hinderances and restrictions of government regulations and controls; cut government spending, reduce taxes, and end the budget deficits; stop the central bank from controlling and printing money; and follow a general policy of non-interventionism at home and abroad.
Pushing a button ending paternalism would not end it
If only you or I were in charge, we could all be “free at last.” Or would we? Shortly after Leonard Read opened the doors of FEE in 1946, he delivered a talk at the Detroit Economic Club with the title, “I’d Push the Button.” He said that if there was a button on the podium from which he was speaking that, if pushed, would abolish all the government regulations and controls over all economic and social activities in America, he would push that button. With one push of the button, the United States would have a fully free-market, limited-government society.
But Read went on to say that if it was possible to push such a button, within little time, that new freedom would be reversed. Many, if not all, the regulations, restrictions, and redistributions would be back in place. Why? Because far too many Americans want government for all of those paternalistic things. The reason no such button pushing was necessary through a good part of nineteenth-century America was because most Americans during that earlier time believed in and wanted a society of widespread individual liberty, freedom of enterprise and trade, and a government limited to securing people’s individual rights rather than abridging them.
That dramatically began to change in the twentieth century. Yes, an elite of intellectuals, academics, and ideological proselytizers made the case for a bigger, a more intrusive, a more paternalistic political and economic system. These molders of ideas succeeded in changing people’s minds and therefore the climate of opinion and beliefs about the role of government in society and what people should expect from those in political office.
Is America worth defending, and if so, why?
But the fact remains that this view of government is now shared and believed in by a large number of Americans. This is exacerbated, I would say, by how little the average American knows about the founding ideas and history of his own country. Again, the intellectual, academic, and ideological elites have helped create this dilemma, and they continue to maintain it.
That is why, for instance, they are so intent on embedding the 1619 Project into the educational curriculum from grade school through the university. If America was founded in and is based on racism since the first slaves arrived in colonial Virginia, then the notions of individual freedom, freedom of association, freedoms of speech and the press, etc., have all been shams, ruses to rationalize the oppression by one racial and gender group over all others. The spirit of 1776 is just a lie.
Who would want to defend or justify that? As one indication, in an opinion poll taken in March 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, those surveyed were asked if they would stay and defend the United States if it were to be invaded by a foreign country like Putin’s Russia. In the 18 to 34 age group, only 45 percent said yes to that question. For those over 50, that number rose to 66 percent. Only 40 percent of Democrats said they would stay and defend America against an invader. After all, if America is an inescapably racist nation, who cares if someone like Putin were to conquer the country and impose his own authoritarian regime? Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
But for those who say they would stay and defend the United States against an aggressive invader, what would they be fighting for? If that Hart Research opinion survey is in any way accurate, too many Americans would be fighting to protect the American version of the paternalist and social engineering state.
There is nothing wrong for wanting to defend one’s family, community, or nation when threatened and attacked by either domestic or foreign aggressors. That is the meaning of self-defense in protection of one’s rights and liberty. But if a successful defense against some foreign tyrant were to leave America with its own version of a democratic despotism of the interventionist-welfare state, it would be a hollow victory.
Our fellow Americans need to be reasoned with to better understand that we should not only not want a dictatorship imposed from outside but we should also not want a domestic dictatorship, even when democratically elected, to paternalistically “get things done.” We each must give up the idea, “If only I was dictator, I know how to set things right.” Each of us has to see the correctness in Ludwig von Mises’s answer to that question and say, “I would abdicate.” That is the answer that any free person should know to and want to give.
First appeared in the Future of Freedom Foundation.