A few weeks ago, I was a keynote speaker at Freedom Fest, the big libertarian convention in Las Vegas. Do I seem an odd choice, given my past thorough and merciless dissections of Ayn Rand?
In fact I’ve done this before, showing up to suggest that a movement claiming to be all about freedom might want to veer away from its recent, mutant obsession — empowering and enabling the kind of owner-oligarchy that oppressed humanity all across the last 6000 years. Instead, I propose going back to a more healthy and well-grounded libertarian rootstock — encouraging the vast creative power of open-flat-fair competition…
…a word that libertarians scarcely mention, anymore. Because it conflicts fundamentally with their current focus — promoting inherited oligarchy.
With that impudent, contrary attitude, would you believe I had a fine and interesting time? My son and I dined at the VIP table with publishing magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Along with humorist P. J. O’Rourke and John Mackey (Whole Foods and an avid SciFi reader.) Also at the table? Grover (I kid you not) Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a guiding force beyond the American right’s current-central obsession — that government of/by/for the people must perish from the Earth.
Would you be surprised that I was the most-liberal voice at this gathering? And yes, I managed to poke without being rude. (I’ve been known to poke in other directions, too!) See an addendum, below, offering more about the Freedom Fest event.
Foremost, though, I want to focus one piece of polemic that Grover Norquist thrust upon us over dinner, concerning the origins of the American Revolution.
== It’s not easy being green ==
Grover N. asserted that, in 1770, the British people put up with being taxed above a 20% rate, while folks in the colonies were taxed at roughly 2% of their average income. Yet, those colonists reacted fiercely and rebelled when/because they saw that burden doubled to 4%!
What an interesting assertion! It turns out that the statistics are generally true, that is, when it came to taxes passed by Parliament – though Mr. Norquist leaves out levies enacted separately by colonial legislatures. But my real quibble concerns which word is correct in the preceding paragraph: “when” or “because.”
Norquist says “because.” Implying that American colonists – unique by their irascibly independent nature – were eager to shuck all old loyalties, to risk hanging, to endure devastating war and deprivation, because 4% was beyond all forbearance. And therefore, today’s American populace, enduring many times that rate of taxation must be inferior, devolved creatures, unworthy of such a founding generation.
May I be frank? That assertion is utter, howling malarkey. In fact, the Founder generation in the 1770s was willing to pay many times as much tax, if only they were treated as full citizens, with representation. The Tea and Stamp and other taxes were convenient ignition sparks, But the fuel for a real fire was far more significant.
== True Grievances Behind the American Revolution ==
The American Revolution serves as a Rorschach test that reflects the obsessions of each succeeding generation. In the 1920s, Marxist notions of class struggle dominated and thus even anti-communist historians viewed the rebellion as a phase shift from monarchal domination to empowerment of the bourgeoisie. In the forties, this seemed hackneyed and literalist scholars started instead taking the Founders at their word — that the Revolution was an idealistic exercise in limiting the scope of government.
During the cynical 1960s, fashions changed again, to viewing the rebellion as a manipulative putsch that allowed local gentry — the caste of Washington and Jefferson — to displace others at the top of the heap. A lateral coup, with just enough populism to keep the middle class placid.
What these generations of scholars all seemed to agree upon was that the colonists weren’t rebelling over the raw magnitude of taxes. Indeed, many expressed puzzlement that there were any grievances worth fighting and dying over! Certainly it all seemed rather far-fetched, given how comfortable life had been for most American colonists, especially compared to the mountain of crimes committed against the people of France, by the Bourbon ancien regime.
In fact, despite the hairsplitting obsessions of academic scholars — and the puerile tendency of textbooks and politicians to mention only tea and stamp taxes — it is pretty clear in historical records that the colonists revolted for a host of genuine grievances:
- Monopolies such as the East India Company had been granted exclusive trading rights, cutting out American merchants, funneling commerce through ports and markets controlled by the top one hundred British families — the one-percent or one-percent of one-percent. Colonial goods had to be carried in cartel ships, and sold through cartel agents. Thus Americans were viewed as cash machines for the Crown and nobles. Those who had the gold, made the rules, and those rules ensured they would get more, an ancient and deeply human pattern that Adam Smith denounced with the publication of Wealth of Nations, in 1776.
- The insanely destructive 1764 Currency Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing paper currency and required use only of coinage released by the cartel, in London. This devastated the velocity of money, making it difficult for colonists to pay their debts and taxes, even if they had plenty of non-liquid wealth, and forcing thousands into bankruptcy. Contemporary accounts tell that until the 1764 law, you could scarcely find a jobless or poor person in British America. After the colonies were banned from printing money, the economy tanked. Suddenly there were homeless and beggars everywhere.
That’s a helluva lot less abstract than a tax on tea. Alas though, it does not suit the tea-party narrative. Note also that there has always been an obsession, in society’s aristocratic class, with lowering the velocity of money, a policy that always devastates the middle class.
3) Almost half of the land in the colonies was owned by absentee lords. The main reason Franklin was sent to London (around 1760) was to attempt persuading the Penn family (also later the Baltimores and other members of the aristocratic cartel) to allow themselves to be taxed, even at very low rates, so that the colonies could function. Their refusal to contribute (based on ancient feudal privilege) was identical to the rigid stance of the aristocratic First Estate in 1789 France. The “legal” basis was exactly the same.
(Note: those French nobles lost their heads because they clutched obstinate, unreasoning greed. In contrast, the Penns/Baltimores and other lordly families with vast American holdings merely lost their lands, which the Founders seized and redistributed, like the “socialists” they were!
(Hence let me put a side wager on the table: care to bet how the Kochs/Murdochs will behave, as they push exactly the same privilege-line to its inevitable conclusion? Never tax the “job creators!” Which of those two outcomes is likely to befall them, when that propaganda line finally loses its distraction effectiveness and America’s lower middle class remembers their grandparents’ tales of earlier phases of class warfare? Will the final outcome be the French result? Or the American? Either way, these fellows are nowhere near as smart as they think they are.)
4) Coming in at number four, at last: taxation without representation! Yes, it is the classic. Only let’s dive deeper into this one, because true history is nothing like what we’re told by the Norquist/Teaparty narrative.
The British Parliament was at that time hugely “gerrymandered,” to apply a modern term. There were many Rotten Burroughs where a lord and a few dozen tenants got to elect their own MP, while the masses in Birmingham and London were steeply under-represented… and Americans had no representation at all. Reforming this mess (it eventually happened) would have prevented the explosion, keeping the colonies loyal. But it would also hurt the short-term self-interest of those lords and MPs. So, the blatantly unjust system was maintained and American grievance ignored.
Did you catch the parallel? Today’s Republican Party relies utterly upon two kinds of gerrymandering. In red state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, it is the blatant twisting of electoral districts. (Some blue states do it, too, but more of them are abandoning the foul practice; not one red state has.)
In the U.S. Senate, gerrymandered-unfair representation is even more deeply embedded. It derives from the cynical drawing of state boundaries, so that — for example — Dakota Territory was split in two and given four Senators, despite having minuscule population, then and now. That problem is much harder to fix and must await a truly angry era – one that is evidently coming.
An aside: just to make this perfectly clear — anyone defending this wretched cheat (gerrymandering) is – himself – thus proved to be a cheater and liar and an enemy of the Republic. There is no matter of ambiguity or opinion over that. No rationalization to save you from what you see in the mirror. Reform will happen (as it eventually came to the British Parliament, after the damage was done). Those who delay reform of this dastardly practice are little better than thieves, and stupid ones, blind to how much worse they are only making the inevitable backlash.
The crux: you claim the American people despise their government and taxation? How about letting our elections be fair and proportionately representative, then let the people decide.
5) British laws against settlement beyond the Appalachians. At surface, this rule was to protect native tribes. Indeed, resentment against this restriction, particularly by Scots-Irish immigrants, arose because they wanted to go over the mountains to grab farmland from peoples already living there. But the Crown and Lords weren’t doing this to be nice to the tribes. They had a real problem on their hands.
The frontier provided an easy haven to which tenant farmers, indentured servants and slaves might flee, and/or remake themselves. That escape option – unavailable in old Europe – made it very hard to maintain a bottom-caste peasantry. For all its faults, the frontier forged the deeply libertarian American soul.
(Again… I am talking about older libertarianism… not the weirdly-mutated thing the movement has become.)
Note that factor #5 came to roost in two of the most important battles of the Revolution, King’s Mountain and Cowpens, when those Scots-Irish frontiersmen bloodied Cornwallis and helped take back the South from Charleston tories. (Note to nation. Please, next time, let Charleston secede!)
6) Egalitarianism. Some historians anchor the American Revolution upon a single day, when Ben Franklin was summoned before the King’s Privy Council for a public berating and humiliation… the day that the smartest man in a century was converted from an impudent-but-loyal subject into a dedicated conspirator for independence. The colonies were already home to a new spirit and ethos – part cantankerous, part ebullient and hopeful, and part-scientific, with all those portions combining to demand one core question:
“Why should I have to bow down, or be bullied, by another mere human… just because of who his father was?”
The irony is rich. Those today citing the Founders most often are folks who are most vigorously helping propel us back into a world of inherited status, dominated by clans and cartels of aristocratic families.
In his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood emphasizes this aspect, pondering that the new idealism crystallized by Thomas Paine might have built into a breakthrough not seen since Periclean Athens — the invention of the dedicated modern citizen. Wood parses this idealism into many permutations, dissecting variations of republicanism, none of which matter to us here. Suffice it to say that a general quality of fervent belief in a New Man clearly did take hold, taking over from earlier grievances.
In Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Princeton professor Danielle Allen ponders every sentence of the seminal American document and sometimes every word, examining five facets that revolve around the notion of political equality, including, as Gordon Wood describes: “the importance of reciprocity or mutual responsiveness to achieving the conditions of freedom.” In other words, providing the back and forth of accountability that no individual can apply to him or herself. The reciprocal accountability that was strenuously avoided and quashed by every ruling caste, in almost every other society that ever existed, and that is perpetually under attack, in our own.
Make no mistake. The Charleston tories became Confederate plantation lords, who aimed to re-establish inherited-landed-ownership nobility, the classic human pattern that ruined markets and competition and freedom and social mobility in every society other than ours.
And that torch is now carried by hirelings of a new oligarchy, diverting libertarian passion away from flat-open-fair competition over to worship of absolute property rights, no matter how inherited or how much this re-creates the Olde Order that sparked our Revolution.
== What about hatred of taxation? ==
Were there other reasons for rebellion? Sure. For example, as in all civil wars, many felt their blood boil over local and personal grievances, spurring groups of neighbors to call themselves “tory” or “patriot” while riding forth to settle old scores. But for our purposes here, it suffices to demolish the pat and absurd narrative of today’s right, that the rebellion was all about… or indeed had much of anything to do with… the basic amount of taxation.
Oh, sure, there were earlier versions of Grover Norquist, in those days. But few.
For example, take the Whiskey Rebellion, which is often cited by radical libertarians as a failed but glorious attempt to finish the revolution.
How inconvenient to point out that the Whiskey Rebellion was not against the Whiskey Tax, per se! Rather it expressed resentment that state authorities refused to let farmers pay the tax… in whiskey! Which was their only cash commodity! They had no silver, but were willing to pay… in ‘shine! (Which was freely traded about as currency, in those days.) Instead, domineering officials demanded coin, and thus bankrupted a number of farmers, driving others into a fury.
(Note the exact parallel with Parliament’s foolish 1764 Currency Act. Indeed, the very same principle was at stake in the much later Free Silver platform of William Jennings Bryan. And it is seen in those who urge us to “return to the gold standard.” Indeed, this same effect is manifest in Congress’s obstinate refusal to fund desperately needed infrastructure repairs that would have employed 100,000 Americans, circulating high velocity money… a far better form of stimulation than the Fed’s bond buying program, whose inefficient “stimulus” poured half a trillion dollars into low-velocity uses, like inflating asset bubbles. Again and again, the pattern repeats: aristocrats use their political influence to bring down the velocity of money and to beggar the middle class. An old battle, indeed.)
And yes, that was a case where state bureaucrats were bossy, insensitive, impractical and ruinous of the people they were supposed to serve. I told you, I have a libertarian streak! Government is a perpetual threat to freedom – even if today’s right exaggerates the current danger, a hundred-fold. Sincere civil servants can metastasize into overbearing bureaucrats! It isn’t only oligarchy that threatens us. All accumulations of power must have accountability!
The upshot of the Whiskey Rebellion was that Washington and his troops established the power of the state to tax. But there also ensued hurried changes in law, easing the farmers’ debt crisis, based on a principle we should always remember. That the state’s power should never become destructive of its citizens.
== The Underlying Agenda of the Narrative ==
I will hand it to Grover Norquist. He is honest about his goal, which is to starve government, then strangle it and then bury it. (Did I leave out the step of incineration?) He makes no pretense otherwise. Reiterating: Norquist and his co-religionists precisely want “government of the people, by the people, for the people” to perish from the Earth.
Now, as a science fiction author… and as a child of Adam Smith and George Orwell and Robert Heinlein… I openly avow that overweening and over-reaching government can be one of the Great Failure Modes! We need an active libertarian side of the national and world conversation, focusing skepticism on the potential for bureaucrats and armies and police to betray and oppress the citizens who hire them! Just as we need others to remind us that the greatest enemies of markets and enterprise and freedom — across 6000 years — have been cartels of owner-oligarch-lords.
Cheaters can arise from any direction, aiming to end our Great Experiment and return us to the old pyramid of privilege, and it does not matter much if the masters call themselves “civil servants,” “job-creators,” feudal lords or communist commissars. It is the same cheating impulse. And it may erupt straight out of genetic nature. Unless we constantly resist all would-be lords, whatever direction they come from and whatever rationalizations they offer.
Which is why we need moderate libertarians who will constantly demand proof that any statist “solution” will both solve the problem at-hand and not take us toward Big Brother. Just as we need moderate liberals to remind us that the best capitalism is one that is flat-open-transparent and broken into units that are small enough to fail. A capitalism that benefits (as Hayek preached) from maximizing the number of skilled, eager and ready competitors! And hence, a society in which all children grow up healthy, educated, well-fed, hitting age 25 prepared to… compete! From basically equal starting gates. Not based on who their fathers were.
(Competition. There’s that word again. If only it were, once again, a libertarian touch stone.)
A plague on both the simplistic, lord-loving entire-right and a patronizingly pushy-PC far-left, both of which despise even the notion of flat-open-fair competition. Indignant dogmas are a plague, crippling our genius at negotiating an agile and sophisticated and wise civilization.
== We have a revolution to uphold… ==
As for Grover and his agenda. Sorry. Adam Smith and the Founders knew what our parents and grandparents in the Greatest Generation knew… that a government that is warily watched can serve us. And it can serve as a counterweight to other, older and just-as-dangerous centers of power. We remain free by siccing elites against each other! And that cannot happen if government completely vanishes. Or is neutered.
A lean and leashed government is the only tool citizens have to counterbalance the inevitable cheating by aristocracy that ruined every other human renaissance. Adam Smith And the Founders knew this. Every generation of Americans rebelled against cheaters… generally through calm reforms, but twice violently… though never falling into the intemperate rage of the Russian, French or Chinese revolutions.
Again I keep coming bcd to the ‘greatest generation‘ — that fought depression and Hitler and made the flattest but most successful capitalist society… one that got rich so fast that it could then afford to start toppling ancient injustices, like racism, sexism and all that. Do you admire that generation? Well, that ‘greatest generation’ revered and adored one man, above all others. He was the same man that the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation the Koch brothers and Fox News all now want us to call Satan Incarnate.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Who saved America as a flat-fair-open market economy, from monsters of both left and right. And yes, many of FDR’s solutions were not appropriate for our era. I prefer looser approaches, that leverage on the vastly higher levels of education that our tech-savvy populace has achieved — in part because of what the Greatest Generation accomplished.
But I will proudly stand up for the founding father of both liberalism and libertarianism. Adam Smith, author of both Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was almost as smart as Ben Franklin! And both of them proposed that the future will be won by moderate, undogmatic people, who are passionately reasonable! I relentlessly preach for agile, citizen-level power, a burgeoning Age of Amateurs, for Smart Mob ad hoc networks, and for local action.
I will continue preaching to liberals that they should rediscover their Smithian libertarian side.
Meanwhile, though, libertarians, you must stop the ranting and lapel-grabbing dogmas that were spoon-fed to you by “think tanks” operated by a fast-rising caste of oligarchic-feudal cheaters! The great enemy of freedom across 6000 years, returning with a vengeance. Escape your hypnotic, Platonic catechisms and realize… that the true, healthy heart of your movement is far more liberal than you ever realized.
We are still the rebels. Here is to ongoing, militantly-moderate Revolution, forever
See my collected articles: Libertarianism: Finding a New Path.
** NOTES ON THE FESTIVAL: My hosts, Mark & Jo Ann Skousen, were lovely, their Freedom Film Festival was intriguing/challenging, and the evening’s talent show, a libertarian re-telling of Camelot, was a hoot. Oh, and the Janis Joplin impersonator was terrific! Hey, it’s Vegas; you can hire anyone or anything.
Clearly, the top organizers of FreedomFest wanted to toss a grenade at the Randians and Rothbardians, and I was that grenade! In fact, I found it all very interesting… and proof that I don’t need a political chiropractor! I can turn my head and look all ways, seeking value, and listening well enough to understand what I refute. (Can you?)