In my lifetime, I want to see the benefits of free trade as broadly appreciated as the fact of gravity. I want to see civil society replace much of what exists today as the welfare state, so government’s role is reduced to a simple safety net for those who need it the most. I want a sound monetary system that’s immune from the tampering of government officials. I want to see absolute poverty eliminated from the earth, and our ancient hatreds be washed away by a growing culture of tolerance and respect.
Conventional wisdom tells us that none of these wishes will be fully realized anytime in the near future, but I don’t find that discouraging.
When Ronald Reagan urged “Tear down this wall!” at the Brandenburg Gate 30 years ago this summer, no one predicted his wish would be realized within 29 months. But, in part because he dared to envision it, that wall did get torn down — and, with it, the inevitability of communism. The world came to see what Reagan had long understood.
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, addresses the people of West Berlin at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, near the Berlin wall. Photo credit: MIKE SARGENT/AFP/GETTY
“In the Communist world, we see failure,” Reagan said. “Technological backwardness. Declining standards of health. Even want of the most basic kind — too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. ... [T]here stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion. Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatred among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.”
This was not the conventional wisdom of the time.
What Reagan described as an “inescapable conclusion” had, in fact, escaped many who were presumed to be the brightest minds of the era. Look no further than Paul Samuelson’s widely used Economics text. Even its 1989 edition asserted that “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.”
I see a future where today’s Keynesian texts — which remain confident that the market economy is enhanced, rather than undermined, by the tinkering of government officials — will appear just as absurd as the above passage. This future may be some years away, but I am convinced it will come. Think back to Reagan for a moment. He first suggested that “if the Berlin Wall should disappear, I think that this would be a step toward peace,” a full 20 years before his presidential speech in Berlin. At the time, he was just a first-term governor in California.
What do we need to do to accelerate progress toward a future of liberty? We need to capture the moral high ground — a difficult task for reasons explained eloquently in a piece Professor Michael Munger wrote for FEE titled “Unicorn Governance.” He says that people who are primarily interested in consequences (e.g., better health care for everyone) will be sympathetic to arguments that those consequences can be achieved by “the State.” After all, they can imagine a wise and benevolent entity simply creating better outcomes. The reality, of course, is that this perfectly benevolent and public-spirited “unicorn government” does not actually exist. P.J. O’Rourke came much closer to the truth when he suggested that giving money and power to government is comparable to “giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
Anti-government protesters clash with police in Venezuela during a march that escalated into a street battle in the capital, Caracas. Photo credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS / REUTERS/LANDOV
Part of our task is to popularize the insights of public choice theory, so audiences lose their naïve faith in unicorn government. Another important task is to get better at envisioning and communicating our vision of what liberty looks like. In the Nobel laureate economist Friedrich A. Hayek’s great essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” he wrote, “It was [the socialists’] courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion …”
We do not need to peddle a disingenuous theory of “unicorn markets” that solve everything. We can be honest about the trade-offs foregone and the imperfections that result in any human society. Yet we need to be unabashed in describing a better future that is built not by government, but by those dynamic and creative parts of our society that welcome accountability.
Cuban refugees stranded on a makeshift raft float in the open sea about halfway between Key West, Florida, and Cuba in 1994. Photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS.
I looked back at other famous Reagan speeches recently to see how he did it. I took note of the following line from 1982, part of his effort to upend the diplomatic status quo of accommodating the Soviet Union. Reagan had a knack for pointing out things that many people wanted to ignore:
“[O]ne of the simple but overwhelming facts of our time is this: Of all the millions of refugees we’ve seen in the modern world, their flight is always away from, not toward the Communist world. … [O]ur military forces face east to prevent a possible invasion. On the other side of the line, the Soviet forces face east to prevent their people from leaving.”
He also had what Hayek called “the courage to be Utopian.” Reagan closed his last speech as president by painting a verbal picture:
“I've spoken of [John Winthrop’s ‘City upon a Hill’] all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace — a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Can we do the same in 2017? One overwhelming fact of our time is that extreme poverty is slowly but surely being conquered and, above all, global trade is to be thanked. Another is that the sectors of our society where innovation is slowest and access to quality service is most unequal are education and health care — precisely where governments have intervened the most.
Let’s envision many shining cities on many hills throughout the world — alive with people who celebrate the happy moments life brings, who engage in trade, and who find meaning in taking responsibility for their societies’ less fortunate members.
Let’s help others see what I believe is an “inescapable conclusion”: that limiting the power of government will unlock unprecedented peace and prosperity in our century.
Ronald Reagan's famous address at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987 can be read in its entirety here.