FEE Promotes Liberty in Denver

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FEE Promotes Liberty in Denver

by Ari Armstrong, December 5, 2005

Richard Ebeling "has not only written and lectured about the cause of liberty, but also lived it. In 1991, while consulting on market reform and privatization in the former Soviet Union, he joined the defenders of freedom and faced the Soviet tanks in Vilnius, Lithuania, and again in Moscow, Russia, during the attempted hard-line communist insurrection." In addition, Ebeling recovered the lost papers of Ludwig von Mises, stolen first by the Nazis and then taken by the Communists. Formerly a professor of economics at Hillsdale College, Ebeling has served as president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) since 2003.

On December 3, Ebeling brought FEE's message of liberty to Denver. Over 100 people attended the one-day event, held at the Westin Tabor Center. Participants included Douglas Bruce, author of Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, an El Paso County Commissioner, and the founder of Active Citizens Together; Penn Pfiffner, president of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers; and Jerry Van Sickle, whose father studied under Mises.

(Continued below.)

Richard and Anna Ebeling and Sheldon Richman attend the reception to conclude FEE's event in Denver.

Penn Pfiffner and Larry Welshon of Alpine Valley School.

Jerry Van Sickle and Steve Gresh.

Sandra and Bob Johnson.

Richard Ebeling raises a toast to liberty.

Ebeling's Introduction

People of the former Soviet Union have overcome "75 years of living under Communist tyranny," Ebeling said, but they still face a "long and difficult path" in the struggle for liberty. They "have a very clear idea of what they don't want," but they have been groping to figure out "what kind of positive system" to establish. Recently, FEE hosted a seminar in Kiev, Ukraine.

Americans tend to take their liberty and prosperity for granted, Ebeling said. For instance, people forget that part of the history of Thanksgiving was the relative prosperity that resulted from the "industry and incentive" of establishing private property rights after the Pilgrims' disastrous experiment with collectivism. Thus, Thanksgiving is properly the "celebration of the birth of free enterprise in America."

The free market, Ebeling argued, is a moral system based on the "dignity of the individual" and that respects the "ends and goals and purposes of our own." Under a system of liberty, "you may not be compelled... no man may force his will on another."

"Each man is free, but no man is an island," Ebeling said. Free markets create "mutual gains from trade through an emerging division of labor" economy. People "mutually consent" to exchanges that benefit all parties. The free-market system is characterized by "nobility and justice," Ebeling argued.

Ebeling contrasted the rich choices of the marketplace with the severely limited choices of the political system. In the market, each individual freely pursues those exchanges he or she believes are best. Under politics, elections usually take place only once every few years. The majority rules over the minority. And the choices available are "rough and periodic," consisting of broad packages.

Too often today in America, Ebeling said, "the presumption is if there is a social problem that needs a solution, the government must provide it." However, "an earlier generation of Americans didn't presume so." Unfortunately, political plans, generally developed by elitists, become captured by special interests.

By contrast, the market allows for diverse plans and creates good incentives.

A Market in Education

Sheldon Richman, editor of FEE's Freeman magazine, argued for a free market in education.

"The good news about the Bush administration is that he wants schools to be accountable. The bad news is that he wants them to be accountable to him," he said. He complained that, while Republicans once wanted to reduce federal influence over education, more recently they have expanded it.

More fundamentally, though, Richman wants a free market in education, not merely decentralized political control. And there are good arguments regarding accountability and parental control in favor of market education. Regardless, "a lot of people believe government should be educating children... they want the government to be doing it." The economic arguments just don't have much traction.

"We have to go to the root," Richman argued. The idea that government should run the educational system "grows out of a deeper principle," which is that "the government is the ultimate parent... that steps in to care for the person." This idea, rooted in monarchy, "did not get eradicated" completely, even with the American Revolution.

Richman reviewed a legal ruling resulting from a survey given to young California children in 2001 that, among other things, included sexually-explicit questions. Understandably, some parents were livid. This led to the legal case, Fields vs. Palmdale School District. A federal court rejected the parents' case, Richman said, explicitly invoking the principle of "parens patriae" -- the government is the ultimate parent.

The judge's basic argument, Richman summarized, is that, since parents agreed to entrust their children to the government-run school, they can't challenge the functionings of the school. However, this argument misses an important fact: parents are forced to fund the school, whether they want to or not. Thus, Richman said, it's "not really a free choice."

The idea of "government as the ultimate parent" is similar to Hillary Clinton's expression that there's "no such thing as other people's children." Richman wondered, "Can you think of a more collectivist principle?" The National Socialists implemented a similar principle, Richman said. But, "you put a Latin name on it, and people believe anything."

One manifestation of the notion of "parens patriae," Richman said, is the increased governmental control over "mental health." Even a plan for "mental-health screening for everybody" has been proposed. "They are opening up a very dark doorway," Richman warned.

Richman briefly described the history of the so-called "common-school movement." The advocates of that movement thought the "core function" of government-run schools is "to shape the population" in the image of the government planners. It was "an anti-family crusade from the start," Richman said. One explicit goal was to "Christianize the Catholics."

"These were the social engineers par excellence," Richman said; "They always talked about 'molding'... This is obviously not the liberal spirit," but rather "top-down central control."

Richman addressed the concern about poor students. Unfortunately, there is a widespread "assumption that they don't know what they're doing, that they can't make it without the state." However, evidence from the U.S. and around the world suggests that even poor parents regularly choose a good education for their children, when given the chance.

Richman mentioned the work of James Tooley. By coincidence, the same day as Richman's talk, the Rocky Mountain News published a column by Linda Seebach about Tooley. She writes, "Amid some of the direst poverty in the world, small private schools are flourishing, powerful testimony to parents' determination to provide an education for their children... Tooley and his researchers have gone looking for similar [private] schools in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, India and China -- and found them, in great numbers, everywhere they looked. Overall, they do as well as or better than official schools -- if there even are any official schools -- with comparably disadvantaged children." Seebach quotes Tooley: "[T]he poor have found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on Earth have managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves."

In a market system, Richman pointed out, the poor would not be forced to pay for schools they didn't use. "'Free' in the government context means that you pay for it, whether you use it or not."

"We need parents to control the education of their children, and the only way they can do that is to control the money," Richman said.

During the question period, I pointed out that most Colorado voters approved more state spending for K-12 education. Is there any use in trying to influence how that money is spent? Richman replied, "I would not play this deadly game of telling them how to spend the money." He said "influencing a monopoly system" isn't very useful; "stay away from that trap." He added a bit later, "I don't think there's a big macro solution to this." Instead, he advocates writing and speaking to influence parents to choose market alternatives.

In response to another question, Richman described the support for tax-funded education even among Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and J.S. Mill. In the case of education, the general philosophy of liberty "didn't go all the way down... and it's hurt us." At least Jefferson was against compulsory education, he added.

Markets and the Environment

Doug Bandow argued that "environmental amenities are important." However, there is an "increasing willingness to use the coercion of government" to solve environmental problems, at the expense of better market-based solutions.

Despite the "doom and gloom" rhetoric of some environmentalists, there's an "extraordinary amount of good news," Bandow said. Air quality is up, pollution is down, water quality is up, emissions are down, and forests are more widespread. And these improvements began prior to the passage of environmental legislation. Why? Bandow argued that increased prosperity leads to more concern with the environment. There's "a lot going on that's outside of the law" in terms of environmental improvement.

Governmental control of the environment often has had poor results, Bandow said. He listed several examples. Federal control of forests has led to subsidized logging. The government effectively takes control of some private property for the cause of "wetlands," even as the government has destroyed other wetlands. Water subsidies and crop subsidies have led to wasteful farming practices. "The federal government subsidizes people to build in flood plains," leading to wasted money and environmental harms. U.S. taxes, via the World Bank, subsidize the politically-led deforestation of Brazilian rain forests. Often "government is far more likely to do harm," Bandow argued.

For political purposes, some environmentalists intentionally try to create hysteria. People have a problem with relative risk assessment, Bandow said. Some people obsess about miniscule environmental risks, even as they participate in far more dangerous activities.

Bandow also gave a quick run-down of the global warming debate, even though, he warned, it's an "extremely complicated area." In the late '70s and early '80s, Bandow reviewed, the big scare was the coming ice age. Publications such as Time and National Geographic ran grim scenarios about global cooling. Regardless, though, now there "almost certainly" is some global warming. But the causes and impacts of this warming are far from obvious. Yet "the whole issue is very, very political."

Bandow noted that temperatures were warmer for most of human development, but there was a cooling period from about 1350 through 1850. It's "a very complex creature we're dealing with," he said. Estimates of the magnitude of possible future warming have been "dramatically reduced."

Even if global warming is a real phenomenon and it is also a real problem, that still doesn't justify, for example, the Kyoto treaty, which Bandow described as having high costs and a trivial impact on warming. "If global warming is a concern, Kyoto is no answer," he said.

Bandow struck a pragmatic tone, arguing that, in such matters as air quality, the proper approach is to "strike a balance" that involves government regulations and "market and private alternatives." He said environmental concerns ought not push out other values, such as liberty. And he allowed for "market mechanisms" within a political context. Thus, while Bandow offered a number of interesting specific examples and arguments, he didn't offer a coherent theory of proper environmental policy. Nor did he offer a rigorous account of the relationship between environmental concerns and a political system of individual rights.

The Hell of Soviet Russia

Richard Ebeling's wife, Anna, also works for FEE. For her doctoral degree, she wrote about American mass media with respect to presidential politics, from FDR to Reagan. She got her degree at the University of Moscow. She lived much of her life under the Soviet regime.

When introducing her husband, Anna (in this section referred to as Ebeling) mentioned that, while in Russia, she got an illegal copy of Bastiat's The Law. She also saw The Freeman, FEE's publication. "Socialism -- I hated it already, but it clarified why," she said.

"I never thought I would be working at the very foundation that changed my life so dramatically," Ebeling added.

Ebeling's father was arrested. Her grandfather was sent to the Gulag as an "enemy of the people." Her grandfather couldn't hear very well, because, when he was tortured by the Soviets, they "hammered nails in his ears."

Ebeling told a story of her childhood. In school, she was taught that Lenin was the grandfather of the people. When she told this to her father, he replied that Lenin murdered one of her grandfathers and nearly murdered the other. "Comrade Lenin is not a relative; Comrade Lenin is a murderer," Ebeling's father told her.

She did have some happier anecdotes. Because of her academic work, she got to meet Reagan once. She told him, "Thank you so much for calling us an Evil Empire." He replied, "You're a very brave girl."

Russia has long had a history of collectivism, a weak middle class, and a view of the political leader as "father," Ebeling said. Then, in the late 19th Century, Russian intellectuals "discovered Marx." In a few years, the Bolsheviks "offered the masses a Marxist utopian dream," a dream that soon resulted in "unprecedented terror" and scores of millions of murders.

The Communists, Ebeling reviewed, instituted a policy of murder "for the good of the Russian people," built massive concentration camps, indoctrinated the children, nationalized industries, initiated censorship, and attempted to achieve "social equality through legal inequality" (i.e., quotas of various types). With the resulting economic devastation, "everyone was equally hungry" (except, of course, for the party officials, who were "more equal than others").

Meanwhile, many Western intellectuals praised the Soviet Union for its morality and productivity; they "failed to see the truth" about the Soviet Union, Ebeling said. In response to a question I asked, she added, "Textbooks hide those facts [about the Soviet Union]. The leftists don't want that history known." The left saw Communism as an ideal, and thus "Stalin had a lot of support among the intellectuals."

Ebeling described Stalin as an almost god-like figure, at least according to official policy and propaganda. And "people denounced each other, not for any reason, but just to express their loyalty... nobody could ever feel safe."

Collectivism was the animating principle of Communism, Ebeling argued. Children were taught to be "part of" the society, not individuals. She said, "We need to remind ourselves, our children, never to be viewed as 'part of'," but instead to be viewed as individuals. She quoted from the dystopian novel We. "You're not 'we'," she said, "and what's mine is not thine."

In reply to a question, Ebeling said she's hopeful about the Ukraine, but she's fearful about Russia. "There are tendencies that scare me." For instance, her Russian friends again seem to be afraid to speak openly over the telephone. And the official rewriting of history seems to be returning. Also, "Putin is a KGB man... You can take a man out of the KGB, but you can't take the KGB out of a KGB man," she feared.

Ebeling did point out that the Soviet "New Economic Policy" reintroduced some elements of economic freedom, which led to a partial, temporary economic recovery. That proves, she says, that Russians are not inherently unable to become successful entrepreneurs in a market society, though very often they have been forcibly prevented from doing so.

From conversations following Ebeling's talk, it was obvious that, of the lectures, her highly personal account of the horrors of Communism made the biggest emotional impact on participants.

What Makes an American?

In his closing talk, Richard Ebeling described what it means to be an American. He pointed out that new citizens must take an oath to the Constitution, which "enacts the Declaration of Independence." That Declaration espouses the "principle of individual liberty," the idea that rights are "universal and true" for everybody. "You came to the shores of America, and what mattered were individual character and ability," Ebeling said. (All further references to Ebeling refer to Richard.)

"The great scar on this was, of course, slavery," which contradicted the principles of the Declaration of Independence and which was finally eliminated.

Under the principles of liberty, people are "free to pursue their own goals and purposes," Ebeling said. Unfortunately, "over the last 100 years, we have moved away from that type and degree of liberty." Today America suffers under numerous regulatory agencies, the income tax, and a fiat monetary system.

"Old fashioned liberty" was characterized by benevolence, charity, and responsibility, Ebeling argued, whereas now the widespread attitude is, "Where's the government to help me?" He said, "Today you cannot turn around without the government confronting you... commanding you, restricting you."

How can this situation be improved? Ebeling said FEE's founder, Leonard Read, offered the following advice: "If you want to change the world, you must start by changing yourself." Ebeling urged participants to pursue "self-improvement and self-education" and become informed experts about political-economy. "There is no central plan for freedom," Ebeling said; "liberty can be ours, but that will depend on each of us."

FEE and Religion

In this section, I move away from exposition to criticism. The central problem with FEE, from my view as influenced by Ayn Rand's Objectivism, is that its leaders try to tie economic liberty to religion.

Following Ebeling's final talk, a member of the audience asked him about the importance of the "Creator" mentioned by the Declaration of Independence. Ebeling answered at some length:

"Whether one is religious or not, one has to understand the tradition... of liberty" would not have arisen in the West "but for the Judeo-Christian heritage."

Judaism gave us the idea that there is a "higher law than man's law," and "that is crucially important." Christianity brought us the idea that "salvation is for the individual," which leads to a "respect of the right of the individual to pursue his life as he sees best."

Jesus asked people to voluntarily follow him; he did not try to have people arrested. Christianity requires "individual choice and acceptance."

These two ideas gave us the "Western notion of liberty." To summarize, the state should not be all-powerful, and individual choice is paramount.

The "Europeans have lost that." They "no longer believe in absolutes... [or] a higher authority." Americans better-understand that the ideas described constitute the "source and profound basis of liberty."

Ebeling's theory is false, and it leads to a number of serious problems.

The main problem is that Ebeling is unable to offer a convincing case for the morality of economic liberty. His case is basically Smithian in nature. We "appeal to our neighbor's self-love" in trade, and in doing so "we are both master and servant." Part of the "nobility and justice" of the free-market system is that, as individuals, we serve others through peaceful transactions. There is an important truth to Ebeling's case: as participants in the market economy, we must indeed offer people things they want in order to trade for things that we want. But, in grounding the morality of the system (at least significantly) on service, Ebeling opens wide the door to service with a little legislative help.

Ebeling makes the standard Public Choice arguments about government action, but ultimately moral views trump arguments about incentives.

While Ebeling talked about reducing what government does, he didn't offer a positive case for the proper functions of government; namely, to protect individual rights. The reason for this oversight, I think, is that, in failing to offer a good moral foundation for economic liberalism, Ebeling's case takes on an element of reactionism, treating government in negative terms because power corrupts and the incentives are bad.

Ebeling's reasoning for why the Judeo-Christian heritage is the basis of liberty is flawed. Let us take his first point, that this heritage established a law higher than man's law. Ebeling conflates this view with the view that the state is not all-powerful, but the two notions are distinct. The more common interpretation of the idea that God's law trumps is that man's law should reflect God's law. This is the view taken by many American Christians both right-wing and left, and, to a greater degree, by many Middle Eastern Muslims.

A quick glance at Exodus, chapters 21 and 22, confirms the theocratic, not the libertarian, interpretation of "higher law." The ordinances described there include the following (Oxford Annotated):

  • "When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years..."
  • "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do."
  • "Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death."
  • "Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death."
  • "When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money."
  • "When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned..."
  • "You shall not permit a sorceress to live."
  • "Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed."

That's not exactly the sort of libertarian world that Ebeling endorses.

What of Ebeling's claim that Christianity requires "individual choice?" At most, the principle requires free choice only with respect to one's own salvation. Forcing people to give money to the poor is no violation of the principle, so long as the point is to help the poor, not help the soul of the donor. According to Matthew 22:15-21, the Pharisees tried to bait Jesus by asking him, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" He replied, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." That's hardly a strong criticism of taxation. The Israelites levied taxes foreign and domestic. Oxford's Companion to the Bible states (779-80), "In the biblical portrayal of Israel's conquest of the Promised Land, the defeated peoples are annihilated when possible in holy war... When the Canaanites managed a negotiated settlement, the obligation was not tribute but forced labor... David... carved out a small empire that brought a flow of booty and tribute to the new capital at Jerusalem... David's new dynasty not only brought Israel great wealth but building projects, a standing army, and a palace bureaucracy, all of which required support by internal taxation along with the foreign revenue."

During the Inquisition, Crusades, witch burnings, and intimidation and murder of various "heretics" and scientists, various Christian leaders failed to see the connection between the "individual choice" allegedly demanded by their religion and a libertarian order such as Ebeling prescribes.

Today, many Christians attempt to justify political controls on pornography, homosexuality, drug use, and so on, in order to prevent the free choices of "deviants" from corrupting others.

Objectivists see the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence basically as a proxy for natural law. Leonard Peikoff writes in The Ominous Parallels, "It has been said... that the belief in God is at the base of the American system, and that the United States is a product of Christian piety. In fact, the religious mentality was not the source of this country's distinctive institutions, but the fundamental obstacle to their emergence" (106).

Interestingly, Ebeling himself noted that the Pilgrims established a collectivist society for religious reasons, but then they instituted private property to keep from starving to death.

Peikoff attributes the American Revolution to the Enlightenment principles of science, reason, and human happiness on Earth. He continues (110-11): "The leaders of the American Enlightenment did not reject the idea of the supernatural completely. Characteristically, they were deists, who believed that God exists as nature's remote, impersonal creator... [but] God thereafter retires into the role of a passive, disinterested spectator. This view... is a remnant of medievalism, in process of fading out. It is in the nature of a vestigial afterthought, whose actual influence on the period is minimal... The result of the Enlightenment ideas... was a surging sense of liberation." Peikoff suggests the Declaration of Independence is fundamentally a product of Aristotelian philosophy, not Christianity.

Ebeling heads an organization devoted to "economic education." Yet he realizes that liberty cannot live by economics alone. And so he tries to make a moral argument for liberty based on Christianity. In that attempt, he fails.

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