December 6, 2016

Can Individual Liberty Be Cool?

While the big decisions about government and how our money is spent are made by the “over thirty crowd,” what is and is not cool belongs to the young. They are the ones that decide what clothes are cool, what music is cool, what movies are cool, and even what ideas are cool. Then they become adults, and before they know it, they have imperceptibly become uncool. Tragically, those who were coolest when they were young are the last to realize this when they are older.

What is cool is always what is new. Rock and roll was cool in the 1950’s, rock in the 1960’s, Disco in the 1970’s, new wave in the 1980’s, and grunge and rap in the 1990’s. What is old is never cool until it is so old that it has been forgotten. Then, it can become new all over again and have a new chance to be cool. Such is the fate of music, clothing, hairstyles, and ideas.

At no time in the past four decades has individual liberty been cool. During the 1960’s, the counterculture started a social revolution that still dominates American society. Some of it was good. The civil rights movement finally won equal rights for blacks and other minorities. Half the nation protested an immoral and terribly destructive war. Both of these movements had overwhelming support from the cool people – the young. The artist class of the time – the rock musicians and movie stars – united in support of these causes. College campuses protested. Anyone not for these programs was “not with it,” or what we would today call totally uncool.
However, the other far-reaching aspect of this revolution was its socialism. Certainly, socialism had been making inroads into American society since Woodrow Wilson, and had taken great strides under FDR. However, at the beginning of the 1960’s, America still held on to many of its values of individual liberty, free markets, self reliance, and property rights. That changed drastically with the advent of the Great Society, bringing in huge federal government spending programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Education, and various programs under “The War on Poverty.”

With the institution of these new social programs, which today combine with the New Deal programs to account for over half of all federal spending, the United States effectively shifted from a constitutional republic based upon individual liberty to a social democracy, devoted to economic equality. This shift was helped immensely by the fact that anyone who was remotely cool was behind it. Those same musicians and celebrities that correctly recognized the gross injustice of violating the civil liberties of blacks and other minorities somehow reconciled themselves with violating the most important civil rights of all – property rights. The same people that condemned the unjustified use of force against the Vietnamese had no problem initiating force against their fellow citizens to pay for the social programs. At least in popular culture, you had to be schizophrenic to be cool.

When I was a teenager in the early 1980’s, there was both a renewed interest in 60’s music and a new style of rock, called New Wave. Like any other teenager, my favorite bands were my heroes, and certainly the coolest people I knew about. While I rediscovered the Beatles, idolized John Lennon, and struggled to learn the guitar riff in “Shakin’ All Over,” I was electrified by the new sounds of R.E.M., U2, the Alarm, and The Housemartins. To the young and naïve, the haughty arrogance with which they contemptuously rebuffed the establishment and rebelled against authority was enough to create the illusion of intellectual superiority. Once someone is cool, you automatically think that they “get it.” Anyone that disagrees with them “doesn’t get it.” This is the message we get from our idols, and it is hard-coded into us by the time we’re old enough to drive. Such has been what is cool for several generations.

I consider myself lucky to have attended Canisius College in Buffalo, NY and had the professors I had in both economics and philosophy. Whatever the rest of the world was being taught then or is being taught today, my economics professors in 1984 were teaching me that Keynsian economics were on the way out, and that, among other things, monetary policy was an idea whose time had passed. At the same time, a philosophy teacher introduced me to John Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government. We spent weeks discussing those essays, dissecting them and discussing their importance to everything that our country was founded upon. I remember being completely enthralled with Locke, his ideas truly “making my heart beat faster.” I’m not sure if it was possible in 1690, but if it was, Locke was way cool.

It certainly didn’t sink in right away, but as I got out into the real world and got a little experience, I began to realize that there were some major problems with the philosophy that the cool people were promoting. Cool or not, their message seemed incompatible with the philosophy of liberty that I had come to believe in so deeply. It certainly came as quite a shock to me, when I finally LISTENED to the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” that the song was actually a call for world communism. Although Michael Stipe has admitted that even HE didn’t know what he was saying on those early R.E.M. records, he is clear enough in his interviews about where he stands on politics. Similarly, “The World’s on Fire” is still one of my all-time favorite songs, but when I became aware of the Housemartins’ political beliefs, I realized that here again was the same socialist message.

Until Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, I had given up on individual liberty. Neither political party was championing it anymore – the Republicans said some nice things in 2000 and then increased entitlement spending more than any administration and Congress in 40 years. In addition, the Republicans had gradually become the pro-war party, contrary to their non-interventionalist stance throughout most of the 20th century. However, the lack of a choice in politics was not what made me abandon hope. It was the fact that for as long as I could remember, anyone that young people considered remotely cool were, for all practical purposes, socialists. With no political party taking a strong stance on individual liberty and the school system deteriorating so that no one seemed to be learning these principles, I had resigned myself that the individual liberty of Locke, the unalienable rights of Jefferson, and the self reliance of Emerson were now relegated to a dusty spot on my bookshelf. Freedom had been forgotten.

However, what was forgotten has become new again. I was quite surprised by the fact that so many college students were electrified by Ron Paul’s message. On no college campus that I can remember has the “cool crowd” ever rallied for individual liberty. Friends told me that Ron Paul’s anti-war message was what attracted young people, but that when they found out that his government was going to stop “giving them things,” that they would turn their backs in a second. I’m not so sure. Dr. Paul has said himself that he was surprised at how many young people focused upon his message about eliminating the Federal Reserve and the income tax, two of the “Ten Planks of the Communist Manifesto.”

As encouraging as that might be, individual liberty is never really going to catch on again until it finds a way to be cool – and let’s face it, all of the cool people are liberals. However, there is now a coalition forming between supporters of Ron Paul and disenfranchised Democrats to oppose civil liberties violations and wars of aggression. If together we can overcome these huge threats to our freedom, that alone will be a great victory. However, I wonder if we can agree that the social programs must go as well? While the wars are immoral and the police state is terrifying, it is the social programs that have destroyed the fabric of our productive society and eaten up all of our wealth. Will the same schizophrenia persist? Will we fight side by side to oppose the initiation of force abroad, but clash over ending it against our own citizens? Will we be united against violations of our rights by law enforcement, but divided when it comes to the most important right of all, the right to the fruits of our labor?

I have hope. Against a common enemy, former rivals often discover that the gulf between them is not that wide. Sometimes, they even find that they like each other. Libertarians agree with liberals on so many issues – war, tolerance, civil rights, free speech, freedom of the press. It is only property rights on which we differ. I humbly make one request of my new allies: consider the idea that voluntary exchange is a better way for us to deal with one another than coercion. I respect your passion to help those in need, but we cannot fund those efforts by force. If we can bridge this one gap, I believe we can form a coalition that will be unstoppable in restoring our republic to peace and freedom. By eliminating legal plunder, we can realize the dream of eliminating poverty and ignorance that seemed within reach a century ago. With the fruits of our labor restored to us, we can revive the private charities that once astonished de Tocqueville and inspired the world. Our nation can again be an engine of prosperity, not for the rich, but for all Americans, rich, poor, and middle class. If we can take this one leap of faith together and believe in freedom once again, there are no bounds to the heights we can reach.

Is that cool?

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