“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
In an exchange of correspondence with a friend, I said that there’s no short-term libertarian hope for America, since not just the government but the population is corrupt. He replied characterizing people as depraved. This wasn’t something I could agree with; it’s the Salvation Army that thinks everybody but them is “totally depraved.” It got me to thinking about the difference, and ultimately to recognizing that there is hope, even the way things are.
When I say Americans are corrupt, I don’t mean they’re horrible people; I mean they’ve they accept horrible things because they’ve been bought off. It’s more important to them to get stuff at other people’s expense or to get dubious protection against tiny risks than to keep their freedom. They’re the people who Ben Franklin said deserve neither liberty nor safety.
In other ways, though, these are mostly good people. They’re privately honest while accepting public dishonesty. They respect the rights of others in person while raping them through the ballot. They wouldn’t rob anyone with threats of force, but they ask their representatives in Washington to.
It’s a matter of what they’ve learned to consider acceptable. Rather then being considered horrible for endorsing robbery by proxy, they’re applauded for their “civic spirit.” In other cultures and times, people have accepted and applauded much worse things — slavery, tyranny, and religious persecution — while taking pride in their personal honor.
We can’t expect libertarian ideas to turn a culture around in a short time. We can hope, though, to make things better than they would have been otherwise. Then perhaps they can get better still, and perhaps at some point opportunities for major change will arise. If not, we may at least help to hold off disaster. Some people think it’s better to let the system collapse, but I wouldn’t want to live in the world that would follow the last chapter of Atlas Shrugged.
Some things have lately changed for the better. There are more legal options for domestic relationships in many places. Some serious restrictions on free speech that were called “campaign reform” have been struck down (and it’s fun to hear progressives howl in outrage). A number of restrictions designed to sustain business cartels have been struck down. Attempts to criminalize recording police activity have been resoundingly defeated. Many things have gotten worse, but the point is that libertarian efforts have helped make things better than they would have been otherwise.
Sure, we’d much rather see government carved down to its proper functions, such as putting Bush and Obama in jail, but we can only deal with the world we have. We have to look for the victories we can get, rebut fallacies, and promote better ideas. It’s not much, but the alternative is giving up.