Ron DeSantis, who could be the next president of the United States, made his views frighteningly clear: “We understand that freedom is not just about the absence of restrictions…. I think we have to understand that the threats to freedom are not simply as a result of what happens in legislatures. Yes, you’ve got to win those fights. The left is trying to impose its agenda through a wide range of arteries in our society, including corporate America.”
On another occasion he said, “Fighting for freedom is not easy because the threats to freedom are more complex and more widespread than in the past. The threats can come from entrenched bureaucrats in D.C., jet-setters in Davos, and corporations wielding public power.”
Why do I call this frightening? Because DeSantis, although he started his political career as a limited-government advocate, has abandoned that position for an activist conservatism that is becoming more prominent. He has gone from budget hawk to culture warrior. (He has long been a war hawk, though lately he’s voiced doubts about the U.S. proxy war against Russia.)
He is especially eager to use the power of the government, as he has shown in Florida, to fight woke cultural positions from public schools to private corporations like Disney. I raise this not because I think the champions of woke culture are right — far from it — but because DeSantis is perfectly willing to build up the government to face down forces that themselves have looked to government to impose their preferences on people. He’s done it as governor of Florida (often ineffectively), and we have every reason to think he’d do it as president.
Whether he knows it or not, DeSantis is voicing an old and mistaken objection to the laissez-faire libertarian philosophy. It’s an objection I’m hearing more frequently from right and left. It is that the philosophy of indivdiudal liberty and constrained government — the original liberal project — has become irrelevant. There’s some dishonesty here because it implies that the critics once found that philosophy relevant. But never mind that.
Why isn’t it relevant? Because, they say or imply, it does not address new threats to freedom. Here’s why that’s an old complaint: for decades people who opposed free markets but remained attached to other parts of classical liberalism (freedom of conscience and toleration) liked to say that Adam Smith made his case for the “system of natural liberty” back when the government was the only threat to the individual and the separation of economy and state was the only answer. But now things have changed, those critics continued, because the new threat is no longer the government but the corporations. Today’s right has broadened the list of threats to include academia, the old mass media, the new digital-age media, and other institutions. (I’ve critiqued that old case before.)
What both forms of that objection miss is that the new threats are derived from the old one. It’s “the dangerous derivative.” Just as “corporate power” would be impossible without government power (see Adam Smith’s view), so those other forms of power would be impossible — or certainly much less formidable — without government power. If you look closely, you can see this principle in horrifying action with the housing bust and financial fiasco of 2008. (See my “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone.”)
What explains this principle of derivation? It is the government’s exclusive “legitimated” power to initiate force: the assumed authority to give orders compelling people who have violated no rights to do some things and not do other things. Only individuals who hold certain positions in government use compulsion legally. Try collecting charitable donations by force from your neighbors or preventing them from drinking alcohol or using heroin. You’ll soon see the police, which of course are personnel of the government.
In those circumstances the people with the power — of taxation most prominently but hardly exclusively — inevitably will use it to subsidize some members of society and impede others. For libertarians and classical liberals, this is the root of class conflict. (Marx’s version was a distortion of the liberal insight.) This will happen in a representative democracy, where providing goodies is crucial to assembling voter blocs, but it also happens in autocracies, because autocrats cannot go it alone.
Without secondary access to government power, private crusaders would be unable to impose their preferences on society. Conservatives miss this point and do not see the government as fundamentally flawed. They see something they don’t like and immediately look to the government to stop it. In the process, they enable their opponents to use power against them later.
Why can’t the conservatives see that without such access, those who aspire to force their dubious preferences would have to resort to persuasion, which apparently is what they don’t want to do? If the government could not finance education, social and hard science, and other influential stations in society — money that always comes with strings — the link between opinion shapers and power would be broken. Those institutions would change from state-succored monopolies or oligopolies to competitive enterprises that would have to prove their worth every day because people would be free to take their money elsewhere. The revolving door between those institutions and government agencies would be blocked, preventing the rotation of activists from nongovernment institutions to bureaucracies where they can shower benefits on their pet causes.
Taxation is merely one way that this perverse situation comes about. The power to regulate peaceful conduct is key. When the social networks complied with “suggestions” from government personnel about deleting or suppressing inconvenient posts, the network executives knew they were at the mercy of the regulatory state. Social networks were not the only sort of firm that thought it prudent to comply with government requests.
Since government power remains the exclusive source of private institutional power, the government still should be the target of those who champion liberty. It is just wrong to think, as DeSantis and others do, that we need to increase the government’s power to protect liberty. Even seemingly innocuous measures, such as the legislative prohibition of wierd subjects in schools, will necessarily be vaguely written and precedent-setting for causes that conservatives oppose. (Decentralized control of schools, if we can’t have a separation of school and state immediately, would be better.) We should never forget Robert Higgs’s lesson about the “ratchet effect”: government easily grows, but it is tough to shrink it.