Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

                      Impediments to Change


How many things are considered impossible until they are actually done!

          Pliny, quoted by Schopenhauer in
World as Will and Representation

Realization of a Genuinely Free Society is extremely problematic, and the odds against ever approaching such a thing astronomically high.  Under the best of circumstances, making substantial changes is extraordinarily difficult, let alone ones with such broad and embedded opposition:

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.  Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.  This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

            Machiavelli
, The Prince

For those generally in favor of establishing a Genuinely Free Society, identifying the obstacles can lead to strategies to overcome them, or at least charting a course in a favorable direction. 

The main obstacle to establishing a Genuinely Free Society is that no one person, no one interest group, will benefit from genuine freedom.  Everybody benefits from increasing freedom, in ways not entirely predictable or discernable, whereas benefits from government intervention are obvious and direct: subsidies, favorable regulations, transfer payments, industrial contracts.  The costs, however, for any particular program are widespread and distributed, yet in total greatly outweigh the aggregate benefits, based on the inefficiency of government administration, and the damage done to potential capital investment and technical advance.  The costs are hidden and grave, while the benefits sparkling and specific, making it easy for politicians to convince themselves and their constituents that the intervention is worthy.

Consider the magnitude of resistance that would be generated from the following examples:

  • Eliminating Social Security.  A political bombshell.  Millions of voters receiving benefits today, with any transition to a private solution guaranteed to cause financial pain to beneficiaries, along with taxpayers.  A large and focused interest group, one that very few politicians wish to tangle. 


  • Legalizing drugs.  Shining a light in the dark underworld of the supply, shipment and distribution of a multi-billion dollar industry would be akin to knocking over a large fire-ant mound and then sitting down in the midst of the frenzy.  So much money at stake, and so many willing to use violence to protect it.  Prisons would lose inmates, government agencies would become redundant, local law enforcement’s mandate greatly reduced.


  • Upholding Morality.  Most voters are comfortable with the status quo, thinking it right that the government use considerable resources to oppose what other people do.  These voters believe the appropriate way to oppose immorality is to support laws against it, even when the immorality pertains to what a person does to themselves, or with consenting adults, in private.  The principle that leads to such laws will impede their repeal.


  • Eliminating Public Education.  Teachers, unions, administrators, all stand to lose their comfortable, predictable, and (generally) low paid situation if public education was privatized.  They would have to work hard to provide educational services that were demonstrably effective, as opposed to simply going through the motions, as so many do today.  There are no consequences for complacency in public education.  Parents and students have little choice, other than to pay in full for alternatives.  In addition, many parents would resist privatization, simply out of fear of change: what if they can’t afford to education their children? or what if nobody provides suitable alternatives within their neighborhood?


  • The Military.  Greatly reducing US military units overseas would raise resistance from local governments for various reasons: one, the foreign governments would have to pay more for their own security.  Two, local economies would be diminished with the closing of American bases.  Third, some Americans would resist the reduction of global occupation based on national pride.  Fourth, other Americans would resist the reduction based on legitimate security interests.  Fifth, some corporations that benefit from military spending would resist, if it meant lower contracts.  (Other corporations might benefit if the US restructured the military in ways that allowed them to project force without so many boots, planes and tanks on the ground.)  Advocating for a strategic withdrawal does not necessarily equate to a smaller military, or a cheaper one.  The nation must be protected from foreign aggressors, and fielding the most technically advanced units essential to that defense.  The US must be poised to win any necessary war, and maintain a dominance that will deter a potential aggressor.  But this can be done without distorting world politics with troops and aircraft perceived as an occupation, or imperialistic presence.


  • Transforming Transportation.  Transitioning away from the private automobile that is responsible for so many deaths and injuries will be hard for people to understand.  They won’t be able to see the possibilities, and will resist the changes necessary to begin the transition.  Supporting transportation alternatives would take a more sophisticated view of things than most people generally possess.


The number of individuals that benefit from these examples alone is enormous.  Another implication with greatly limiting government intervention would be the elimination of power structures.  A Genuinely Free Society has no place for kings, powerful presidents, generals, and wars for them to fight.  No princely bureaucrats ruling over thousands of people with millions and millions to spend.  No need for social engineers sponsoring legislation that forces people to live in a manner different from what they would otherwise choose.  No more urban renewal, funded with taxes extorted from the productive class.  No more protection for corporations threatened by competition and innovation.

Another impediment to bringing about genuine freedom is the nature of those who desire freedom, and abhor politics.  They are unwilling to join the machine, to be party to the current power structure, to contribute to its perpetuation.  Such people tend to avoid voting, as they realize that casting a ballot implicates them in the results, and brings with this civil action the tacit expectation that they support whoever wins.  For those who don’t accept the basic political premise of modern democratic society – that the majority should rule, and that such rulers can expropriate whatever they desire – voting simply endorses the existing political system without offering genuine alternatives.  So they opt out, and stand aside from political action.

Those who believe otherwise, who think they can change things from the inside, and either support a political party, or gain elective office with the intent to ‘become the beast in order to kill it,’ are mistaken.  Once part of the machine, they discover very few options to advocate, let alone bring about, genuine change.  If they persist in their disruption ways, they will be sidelined, cut-off from channels of power and influence:

Those following one party imagine they differ from those following another, whereas all, once they choose, join each other underneath, participate in one and the same nature, and very only in appearance, by the mask they assume.

            E. M. Cioran
, Anathemas and Admirations

In today’s world, there is too much societal ossification, entrenched interests, and lack of inertia for genuine change.  All those roads to hell paved with golden bricks of good intentions, because the majority of people are convinced that an intrusive government helps people, when it actually, on balance, harms them. 

The irony is that the people who would benefit the most from a free society—the poor, the underprivileged, the poorly educated, the sick, the unemployed, the stupid—are the same people that are targeted for help that justifies government intervention in the first place.  Ignorant/naïve good-hearted people support these programs intended to help the unfortunate, when in fact they do more harm than help. 

As a result, any intellectual that seriously proposes genuine individual liberty, especially one as acerbic as Ayn Rand, will sustain many personal attacks without the benefit of true intellectual engagement.  They will be scorned and dismissed.  They will remain deliberately unread and misunderstood.  Their tarnished reputation will precede them, and in most cases, that is all people will know.  It will never be politically correct to read, understand, or acknowledge their existence.

Young people who seriously advocate for genuine freedom, or actively question the magnitude of present-day intervention, often find themselves faced with an unresponsive or denigrating cohort:

A young man with an active mind…is constantly sending out ideas in every direction.  But only those that find a resonance in his environment will be reflected back to him and consolidate, while all the other dispatches are scattered in space and lost!…For if in the course of time, commonplace and impersonal ideas are automatically reinforced while unusual ideas fade away, so that almost everyone, with a mechanical certainty, is bound to become increasingly mediocre, this explains why, despite the thousandfold possibilities available to everyone, the average human being is in fact average.

            Robert Musil
, The Man Without Qualities

For older citizens, despite their tendency to gripe about one thing or another, they have grown accustom to the current state, and regardless of the cost or inconvenience of one government service or another, or the inefficiencies so obviously displayed, or even the quality of arguments for change, they simply don’t have the energy to make the effort:

The majority of men are far too wearied and exhausted by the struggle for existence to gird themselves for a new and harder struggle against error.  Happy to escape the hard labor of thinking for themselves, they are only too glad to resign to others the guardianship of their thoughts.  And if it should happen that higher promptings stir within them, they embrace with avid faith the formulas that state and priesthood hold in readiness for such an event.

            Friedrich Schiller
, Eighth Letter

The political system of the US is capable of producing a Genuinely Free Society.  Constitutional amendments could be passed that expanded the Bill of Rights in ways compatible with genuine freedom.  Laws could be passed that limit government spending, eliminate government borrowing, and forbid excessive monetary expansion.  Leaders in the White House and Congress could be elected to make the needed transformations.  Doing so would require a massive sea change in they way most people think, an educational and spiritual transformation unlike anything in American history.  The distance from here to a Genuinely Free Society is so vast:

To dissent from an entire social order…is bound to look like madness from within the order itself.

            Terry Eagleton
, Sweet Violence

Advocating for a Genuinely Free Society certainly qualifies as ‘dissent from an entire social order.’  Making the changes necessary to realize genuine freedom would possibly require levels of insight, effort and commitment that simply don’t exist within modern society.  For instance, if we consider the ethical framework that E. O. Wilson calls out in his On Human Nature, we can see how problematic such change represents:

Lawrence Kohlberg, an educational psychologist, has traced what he believes to be six sequential stages of ethical reasoning through which each person progresses as part of his normal mental development.  The child moves from an unquestioning dependence on external rules and controls to an increasingly sophisticated set of internalized standards, as follows: (1) simple obedience to rules and authority to avoid punishment, (2) conformity to group behavior to obtain rewards and exchange favors, (3) good-boy orientation, conformity to avoid dislike and rejection by others, (4) duty orientation, conformity avoid censure by authority, disruption of order, and resulting guilt, (5) legalistic orientation, recognition of the value of contracts, some arbitrariness in rule formation to maintain the common good, (6) conscience or principle orientation, primary allegiance to principles of choice, which can overrule law in cases the law is judged to do more harm than good.

          E. O. Wilson
, On Human Nature

Wilson goes on to indicate that individuals can stop at any of the six rungs of the ethical ladder, depending on their intelligence and education.  But most people stop at rung four or five.  These are the stages that respect duty and conformity, and the strict rule of law.  The ability to see past these traditional structures, and to envision and promote significant change, lies in the minority of those who attain the highest level, one with primary allegiance to principles. 

If we accept this construct as approximately correct, we can conclude that the majority will favor the status quo, given their commitment to duty and conformity, or at the most, support minor changes that never stray far from the center.

Most people (and most voters) will resist serious change.  Even those who advocate dramatic change, and do so with the best intentions, and the highest ethical considerations, generally favor more intervention, not less.  There just aren’t that many people committed to genuine freedom:

But the fathers of liberalism—Mill and Constant—want more than this minimum: they demand a maximum degree of non-interference compatible with the minimum demands of social life.  It seems unlikely that this extreme demand for liberty has ever been made by any but a small minority of highly civilized and self-conscious human beings.

            Isaiah Berlin
, The Proper Study of Mankind

Given human nature, and the wide-ranging differences in political opinion, it seems doubtful that a Genuinely Free Society will ever be realized through peaceful means.

Revolution?

Since the time of Marx, communist revolutionaries around the world have faced similar challenges.  Their ideology called for revolution, and the dictatorship of the proletariat to establish their political vision.  And they were correct: very few pure communist governments have been elected or sustained by a free populace.  In the most prominent cases, they came about through revolution (Russia in 1917) or civil war (China in 1949).  Many less-ideologically radical regime changes have required violence to bring about: most prominently France in 1789, and America in 1776.

Calls for revolution were common in the turbulent ‘60s.  Anti-war and anti-racism were prominent themes, underlying riots and various acts of violence.  These sentiments lingered into the late ‘70s, if not later, as I personally met people at that time predicting imminent revolution and fully prepared to participate.

Despite the adverse nature of violence, there are those who accept its necessity, if not paradoxically:

That does not mean that we must be systematically opposed to the use of violence.  I recognize that violence, under whatever form it may show itself, is a setback.  But it is an inevitable setback because we are in a universe of violence; and if it is true that recourse to violence against violence risks perpetuating it, it is also true that it is the only means of bringing an end to it.

            Sartre
, What is Literature?

In some respects, Sartre is correct, when he maintains the need for violence.  In a Genuinely Free Society, the government would exert violent force, and the threat of violent force, to protect citizens from assault, rape, and murder, and other crimes against their person and property.  Violence would also be deployed to protect the nation from aggressive peers.  He is also correct in maintaining the violence begets violence, one of the principle justifications for minimizing it in the first place. 

But even if we limit the use of violence to these primary roles – policing and warfare – violence will not be eliminated from human affairs, so any promises to the contrary are misplaced.  Human violence will only end when humans no longer exist.  That being the case, the goal would be to minimize violence, and that is what a Genuinely Free Society represents.

Even the gently minded and good hearted George Orwell allows the possibility of initiating political violence, when he writes, “At some point or other it may be necessary to use violence.”  He is correct, in that as a socialist, to bring about the society he envisions would require the application of political violence in some form.

Without equivocation, the Altruistic Libertarian vehemently rejects revolution as a viable alternative for political change, no matter how noble or correct, and rejects all forms of aggressive violence, whether by angry individuals, political dissidents, or sitting governments, aimed at changing society.  No arguments for political expediency, or spiritual imperatives can justify shedding blood.  Those who take to bombs and assassination perform acts of evil; terrorists and violent revolutionaries are cast from the same mold, and should be sent to an especially terrible ring in Dante’s inferno.

It’s impossible to prosecute a revolution without duplicating the crimes that justified the revolution in the first place:

Let us imagine that a revolutionary party systematically lies to its militants in order to protect them against uncertainties, cries of conscience, and adverse propaganda.  The end pursued is the abolition of a regime of oppression.  May one perpetuate oppression with the pretext of putting an end to it?  Is it necessary to enslave man in order the better to free him?  It will be said that the means are transitory.  Not if it helps to create a lied-to and lying mankind; for then the men who take power are no longer those who deserve to get hold of it; and the reasons one had for abolishing oppression are undermined by the way one goes about abolishing it.

            Sartre
, What is Literature?

The only justification for political violence arises when an oppressive regime threatens ones life or loved ones.  Within most liberal democracies, such oppression doesn’t exist to that extreme, and in fact, contain within their political system ways to alter their legal and regulatory structure in democratic fashion.  This is truly the most important benefit of genuine democracy, in that it replaced the need for bloody revolution.  Instead of a war, regime change can happen at the ballot box, should enough people become incensed.

Instead of Lenin, Mao or George Washington, the Altruistic Libertarian would point to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as role models to lead non-violent societal change: peaceful demonstrations and thoughtful opposition preferable to the indiscriminate use of bombs and bullets.

Most revolutions don’t deliver on promises anyway.  The majority of people don’t benefit from the change.  Revolutionary leaders and their cohorts do.  Once violence begins, it becomes exceedingly difficult to manage the fallout, and to implement thoughtful and just policies.  Too many extremes occur in revolutionary and civil wars to expect a productive peace.  Has the South totally recovered from their loss in 1865?  What about the Balkans?  Are they now a better place, after the catastrophe of the 90s? 

The two prominent revolutions of the 20th century arose during the midst of international conflict: the Russian Revolution in 1917 probably doesn’t occur if WWI doesn’t.  And it was the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 that ultimately led to the Chinese Communist victory in 1949. 

Initiating, or participating, in revolutionary violence promises nothing but death and destruction, and is more likely to spawn something politically horrible than the paradise on earth most revolutionaries envision.

No More Frontiers

One way to establish a society very different from the incumbent would be to find a new land, one devoid of people, and make it your own.  This occurred in ancient times when Greek colonies spread through the Mediterranean, and each new polis could write its own constitution and govern itself independently.  The New World of the sixteenth century offered the same opportunity, and many Europeans seeking religious freedom braved the Atlantic to establish new colonies in the Americas.  Some of them succeeded and grew into the thirteen colonies that fought and won their independence from England.  Even then, societal restrictions seemed too onerous for many, and they lit out for the territories to live unhindered from the shackles of civilization.  It wasn’t too many years before these brave souls reached the Pacific, and not too many years after that before civilization caught up with the frontier, and pacified it: no more free ranges to roam; roads, electricity, the internet – everywhere.

In time, America will differ little from Europe, in the sense that traditions will rule, bureaucracy will be deeply embedded in every day life, and society will mostly conserve itself as is.  Resistance to change will grow until society hovers around a bloated center.  The two-party system virtually guarantees this fate, given the impossibility of a third alternative to the centrist Democrats and Republicans. 

Is there a place on earth that might welcome the prospect of a Genuinely Free Society?  It’s hard to say for sure, but I doubt it.  The entire surface of the planet has been carved up by political entities, none of which are apt to relinquish their influence or give up their tax-based revenue, or corporate extortion. 

When I was a child, the sea was the last frontier, and we watched with fascination as Jacque Cousteau led us into the deep.  But the sea is an unlikely place for a new society, one based on individual freedom.  Anyone who lives on, or under, the ocean, will likely do so alone, or within a very small cohort. 

After Cousteau came Star Trek, making space the final frontier.  Some science fiction writers, Robert Heinlein in particular, depicted a new freedom in space, in such books as Tunnel in the Sky and Time Enough for Love.  But I have a sense that any space-borne society will resemble Sparta more than Athens.  Even in Star Trek, on a five-year mission (later to become indefinite) to explore new worlds, supposedly a peaceful voyage, the Enterprise was fully armed with phasers and photon torpedoes, and the crew dressed in uniform and subject to rank and commands.  Any spaced-based society will be heavily dependent upon a shared infrastructure, whether it be a ship or planet-side, making it impossible to live independently of a specific social structure and the life-supporting technology.  People in space will be heavily regimented, with little room to roam.

So no more frontiers where a new society can be established; no place to start a new life without the burden of legacy.  We haven’t any choice but to fix the one we have.

Change Masters

Despite the pessimism for beneficial change registered in this post, there are those who have studied history and developed expertise in practical politics that may possess the conceptual tools and the experience necessary to promote a Genuinely Free Society in ways beyond the understanding of the Altruistic Libertarian.  How to cajole and persuade, develop a national strategy and organize a movement.  Perhaps they hold in their hands and their minds the best hope for humans to realize genuine freedom.