Saturday, October 06, 2007

B.W.'s Book Report: The Betrayal of the American Right

How long has the government of the United States given lip service to freedom and individual rights while enforcing its steel will over a citizenry it treats as a collective, a tyrannical government identical in most ways to the empire with which it broke ties in 1776?

You can't get very far into a review of history without drawing a conclusion that most of us living have never known an America where freedom and individual rights were, in fact, given top priority by those in power. The very naive believe the turning point was 9/11; older folks might say it was the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt that built the Leviathan; many target 1913, the 16th Amendment and Woodrow Wilson's commitment of American lives to "make the world safe for democracy."

In a long, meandering journey, I've come to the place many of my readers reached some time ago: If there ever was a free America, it probably met its demise beginning with the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. Over the years, many people have come to the realization that those who believe in an almighty state took the reins long ago from those who believe in the rights of the individual as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The individualists have landed in a position of perpetual minority, moving towards the political party that offers the best rhetoric in support of freedom, often never quite grasping that freedom is a word statists in both parties use to seize the reins of power.

The Betrayal of the American Right is Murray Rothbard's memoir of his long journey from the Old Right to the New Left while standing still ideologically. Ronald Reagan famously stated that he didn't leave the Democratic Party for the Republican Party; "the Democratic Party left me." Similarly, Rothbard chronicles how the "right wing" that fought for a free, laissez faire economy and no foreign entanglements morphed into a force that defended unholy alliances between Big Government and Big Business and imperial military adventures around the world.

In compiling this history, which he wrote in the early 1970s but never published, Rothbard brings together a nifty pile of quotes from books and essays of the era. One excerpt by Ron Hamowy from the New Individualist Review is a chillingly accurate summation of the doctrines of the New Right that makes it clear the "neo-cons" didn't invent this philosophy recently:

"They may be summed up as: (1) a belligerent foreign policy likely to result in war; (2) a suppression of civil liberties at home; (3) a devotion to imperialism and to a polite form of white supremacy; (4) a tendency towards the union of Church and State; (5) the conviction that the community is superior to the individual and that historic tradition is a far better guide than reason; and (6) a rather lukewarm support of the free economy. They wish, in gist, to substitute one group of masters (themselves) for another. They do not desire so much to limit the State as to control it."

Hamowy's critique, written in 1961, remains remarkably contemporary. Rothbard's journey-while-standing-still mirrors a lot of our experiences, I think, as we are drawn to the siren song of liberty as sung by one party or the other, only to discover that the real purpose of the political animal is to win power over us, and that in their twisted minds, freedom means the right to choose which authority will control our lives and undermine our individuality.

This sounds dismally pessimistic, but learning this truth is liberating, in fact, because you realize that being free has nothing to do with the victory of one politician or another - liberty is really an intensely personal lifestyle choice that is independent of state government or politics. The politicians can hamper liberty, and they do, in a big way, all the time - but to their eternal frustration, they can't crush the instinct to personal freedom.

Rothbard's writing is always eye-opening, and this book is liberating even as it describes the inexorable conversion of individualism to statism, and the increasing loneliness of those who buy into the concept of liberty. The good news, in the end, is that we were born with the "inalienable rights" of freedom, and so statism is unnatural, contrary to human nature, and most people resist authoritarianism to one degree or another. Individuals may feel lonely in the face of increasing state power - but we are never alone.

Buy the book for $20 (as of today) at The Mises Institute store or download the .pdf for free off the "New Resources" links on the Mises home page.

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