Episode 109: Taking a Stand (with Robert Higgs)


Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from
Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus. Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell. Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Robert
Higgs, Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute, Editor at Large
of The Independent Review and author of many books including the libertarian classic Crisis
and Leviathan. His new book is taking a stand Reflections
on Life, Liberty and the Economy. Welcome to Free Thoughts. Robert Higgs: Thank you very much. Trevor Burrus: So I would like to start with
your background and history, how you came to libertarianism both in the ideas and then
to become a professional libertarian. Was it something you were just born into or did
you have a moment of revelation when you were 18 or something? Robert Higgs: I would have to speculate on
the remote origins of my inclination toward libertarianism. I was not brought up in a
political household and was not especially interested in politics even when I was in
college although I was interested in certain things at the time. I think I might actually date my movement
in that direction to – when I was 17, I went to the US Coast Guard Academy in New
London, Connecticut and that was a very rigorous place especially in those days. There was
constant harassment and physical and psychological pressure being put on people constantly. So
the idea was to drive away or break people who couldn’t take the pressure. There was
a kind of method in the madness. But one of the things I learned there is that
in a situation like that where there are superiors and inferiors in a chain of command, some
of the superiors will abuse their power and I think that is an insight that stuck with
me from then on for the rest of my life. You give people power, even petty power, at
your peril and there are people who enjoy abusing those who can be abused. I think that
sensibility was important to me as my political thinking developed, which happened during
the 1960s. I didn’t fancy myself a libertarian. If anything, when I was in college, I thought
of myself as a new leftist, which wasn’t all bad. I was always opposed to the Vietnam
War even when most Americans didn’t know it was happening. So that was a big influence on me too because
that taught me that the government is capable of routinely committing horrible crimes for
years on end for the slightest political motives and … Trevor Burrus: Did you read any authors around
that time that helped you out? Robert Higgs: Well, I used to read Ramparts
magazine. That was probably the only kind of ideological reading I did consistently.
But I dabbled in the leftist books of various sorts. I read some marks and some of the contemporary
leftists. I became enamored actually of C. Wright Mills and to this day, I actually defend
Mills in many ways. I think Mills was an honest scholar and of course he didn’t have a decent
understanding of economics and would have benefited greatly from having one. But despite that, C. Wright Mills I think
continues to be someone one can learn from and particularly his analysis of elites and
his book The Power Elite and others. He also wrote a book called The Sociological Imagination,
which has some really excellent advice to young scholars. How do you go about your work
with integrity? Just how do you do the nuts and bolts of it? What are you trying to do?
Which was basically tell the truth. Aaron Ross Powell: I’m curious how this
notion that you picked up that people in power will abuse that power led to specifically
libertarianism and a skepticism about state power, because one of the things that we often
hear especially from those on the left is that that very idea that if people have power,
they’re going to abuse it, the big guys are going to beat down the little guys, is
what makes them want to embrace the state even more because they see the state as the
way to correct that. The bosses or the warlords or the strongest
guy in an archaic world or whatever is going to beat up the little guy or take advantage
of them or force them work long hours for low pay. So we need the state to be the protector
of the little guy, the protector of the common man. Robert Higgs: Well, I was not completely immune
to those kinds of thoughts by any means. But I was saved from going too far down that path
by the fact that I was studying economics. I think if you want to identify one overwhelmingly
fatal flaw in the thinking of nearly all leftists, it’s that they don’t have a clue about
economics. The more I learned about economics, especially
after I got into graduate school, the more I understood the importance of markets and
the benefits of markets and even the relationship between markets and freedom in general. So by the time I got my PhD which was in 1968,
I certainly didn’t consider myself a conservative. Never in my life did I consider myself a conservative.
But I still thought of myself as a person more on the left than anywhere else. But after I went to work as a professor at
the University of Washington, they kicked that out of me pretty quickly and at the same
time, some time in the first year of my teaching career, I stumbled across Hayek and just loved
Hayek. The first thing I read by him was his great 1945 article, The Use of Knowledge in
Society and at the time, I thought, well, that’s a really good article. I can use
that for my students because there’s no math in it. Everybody can understand this. But I didn’t really understand it myself
because being trained as a neoclassical economist, I was thinking that it’s a lot like what
I had learned from Stigler and other Chicagoans about the economics of information. So I still had a lot of understanding to arrive
at. But it led me to have a high opinion of Hayek and so the next thing I did was to read
The Constitution of Liberty which to me was a very important book. Now when I look back
at it, all I can see are all the concessions that Hayek is making one after another, why
some people call him a socialist and all that. But at the time, he seemed like just the perfect
classical liberal and he impressed me with his scholarship. That’s what won me over. Hayek was this great old-fashioned European
scholar who knew a lot of languages and he knew about philosophy and law and he wasn’t
anything like the economist I had read in my education. He was the real deal as a thinker
and so that kind of tipped me over into classical liberalism very early. From that point on, I think I just gradually
evolved in the direction of being a more and more unforgiving classical liberal and late
in the 70s, again because of Hayek’s having cited Mises, I read Human Action from cover
to cover and I would say that was the only kind of epiphany experience of my whole life
as a scholar. That really hit me very hard and actually made my think that I – despite
the success I had been having in mainstream economics, it made me think that everything
I had written was just garbage. Trevor Burrus: I want to ask you about one
of those things. You wrote about – around that time, because it’s my favorite book
of yours. In ’77 it was published. The Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy,
1865-1914, which is definitely in that old style economics, full of graphs and numbers.
But what were your general theses? What did you generally find in that book? Robert Higgs: Well, the book aimed to, as
it were, change the emphasis. Practically everything written in black history took the
view that blacks had been victimized from A to Z at every point in history. It’s almost
a case of what my old colleague Morris Morris used to call the “theory of infinite and
increasing misery”. They started on slavery and then it gets worse every year not withstanding
their emancipation or anything else. That was just so counterfactual that nobody
who respected evidence could accept it and I didn’t when I started reading black history.
But what I tried to do in that book, first is a result of some research I did on particular
issues about land tenure and land ownership and occupational distributions and migration
and so forth. I built up a body of analysis and a set of
facts that led me to believe that not only were blacks not 100 percent victimized but
despite everything working against them and there was a tremendous amount working against
them, they actually succeeded by virtue of their own efforts and by virtue of the fact
that there was competition for their services. That’s why the book is titled Competition
and Coercion because competition – and I had leaned this from Gary Becker’s work
and other work in just the mainstream economics of discrimination. Competition is the salvation of oppressed
people and that can be seen in any case. Pick your ethnic group and you see the same phenomena
operating. If people have something valuable, and certainly black labor was valuable, and
some blacks had skills beyond labor power, there’s going to be potential for someone
to bid away an exploited worker, workers being paid less than the value of his marginal contribution
to output. So in a way, my book was infused by pursuit
of that theme and included ultimately some attempts to estimate what had happened to
black income levels between the late 60s and 1860s and World War One approximately. I found
that black income on average was growing faster than white income was growing. That was a
period of very rapid economic growth in general. But because blacks had started at such a relatively
low level, even if we go 50 years’ time, they’ve only improved from about 25 percent
of the white income level to 35 or 40 percent of the white level. But that’s not trivial.
That’s a lot of improvement and I collected a lot of evidence that demonstrated just in
concrete ways how their living conditions had improved, what kinds of things they might
have in their home, what kinds of clothing, food and entertainment and what have you. They had access to – by the end of that
period, typically, that they had not had access to at the beginning of that period. I mean
the immediately post-war period was horrible in every way because of all the disruptions
of the war and all the destruction that had taken place in the South where 90 percent
of the blacks lived and continued to live throughout the next 50 years. Trevor Burrus: When competition – the market
have done – I mean do you think it did better for blacks in that period than attempts by
governments to alleviate or fix these problems whether it – so we had the problem with
separate but equal for example which was very [Indiscernible] when Plessy v. Ferguson came
down. It was – he was saying you had to have segregated railcars. You were allowed
to but that meant the rail companies had to have two railcars that were half full as opposed
to one that was full, which doesn’t seem to really – the businesses themselves in
the market were not as in discrimination as perhaps the government was. Would you agree
with that? Robert Higgs: Oh, yeah, that was another part
of my thesis that whereas competition in the market was their salvation to the extent that
they had salvation, whenever they encountered the government – in their case it was at
the state and especially the local level where they made these encounters. They were totally
out of luck then. The only hope they had in their encounters with the government was the
protection they could get from a powerful white patron. So a system developed in the South but particularly
in the plantation areas where blacks became beholden to plantation owners or business
owners for protection from the state and if they were arrested, their patron would go
in and pay their fine. If they were about to sentenced to jail or something, the guy
would go in and talk to the judge. In all sorts of ways, there was a trade going on.
This was a market phenomenon, this paternalism. There was a trade going on. The blacks provided
faithful services. They didn’t run away the first time they were unhappy about something
and in exchange they got the protection from the official discriminators that stood ready
to squash any black at any time. Aaron Ross Powell: How much does competition
alleviate these discriminations based on race if I guess the discriminators gained utility
from the racism? So they like not hiring blacks or they would – they really don’t want
to hire them because they don’t want to be around them or the railcars. Like yes,
we could have integrated the railcars but then the white customers might not have been
willing to pay as much or wouldn’t have patronized the service. Robert Higgs: Well, it continues to operate
and can operate with great power, so long as there are enough people who value wealth
more than the exercise of discrimination. In the South, between the war of – between
the states and the First World War, there were plenty of people who preferred wealth
to the pleasures of discrimination and especially these wealthy people. The blacks were hated
more by working class, lower class whites. Wealthy people didn’t fear blacks. They
were so far removed from them by class status and wealth. They didn’t see the blacks as
a threat to them at all. They weren’t hankering to hurt blacks in the same way that lower
class whites were. Aaron Ross Powell: It sounds a lot like our
– a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric today. Robert Higgs: Yeah. Trevor Burrus: Well, also especially if those
lower class whites were unionized and then it got really bad for African-Americans. Robert Higgs: Yeah. Many of the unions that
were formed – and of course in the South, there wasn’t as much unionization as in
other parts of the country. But where unions were formed, they usually did – either discriminate
against blacks or simply exclude blacks from employment. So unionization was definitely a negative
– big negative factor but not one that affected most black workers because there was not enough
unionization in the whole economy. Trevor Burrus: There was more in the North
after the Great Migration. David Bernstein’s Only One Place of Redress is the right book
about that. Robert Higgs: Yes, right. Trevor Burrus: But I wanted to ask you about
another book, the one I had mentioned at the introduction Crisis and Leviathan and probably
your most known book. For those who haven’t read it, definitely if you’re a fan of this
podcast or libertarianism in general, you have to read it. Can you give us an overview
of what you looked for in Crisis and Leviathan? What have you found? Robert Higgs: Well, that book was aimed at
tracking the growth of government, especially the federal government, from the late 19th
century up to the time it was written in the 1980s. At that time, the growth of government
had become a kind of cottage industry among economists and to some extent among political
scientists. People were applying various theories that were lying around in economics or that
they devised for themselves to account for why government got so much bigger in that
century. I didn’t have a great interest in that when
I first started my career but my colleague Douglas North who was the department chairman
and the man who hired me … Trevor Burrus: And a future Nobel Prize winner.
Well, that – future at that time. Robert Higgs: Doug was viewed as the expert
on government economic relations among US economic historians. So he was constantly
writing about this and talking about it and we all worked together, the economic historians
especially. We read each other’s papers. I was in his office practically every day
just to talk about economic history. So I talk to him a lot and in my own teaching
of US economic history courses, I dealt with that subject. But I wasn’t doing research
in that area. But I was getting more and more in a sense frustrated by my inability to persuade
Doug of certain things, particularly that ideology had been very important in this process,
ideological change, and also that the national emergency periods, especially the World Wars,
had been critical times for the growth of government. Neither element at that time had become important
in Doug’s thinking. So by the early 80s, by 1980, 1981, I decided, well, I think I
will write a book on this and my idea was just to write about basically the two World
Wars and the Great Depression because that’s where the main action was for these crises. But when I started writing and started going
around giving talks to other universities, one of the questions that often came up was,
“Well, there were crises at earlier times in history. Why didn’t they produce this
ratchet effect you are telling us was produced by the wars and the depression?” That led me to decide that I needed to have
a chapter on progressivism because I had come to believe that it was that ideological watershed
of progressivism that created a condition wherein there would be a ratchet effect. You
have to have people predisposed to think that when there’s an emergency, government should
jump in with all four feet and that had not existed in the 19th century. It’s not that
nobody wanted government to come in and hand rents to them or do favors for them. That
has always been the case. But in the 19th century, there was a kind of dominant ideological
belief that government should be limited. Trevor Burrus: Or at least the federal government
or … Robert Higgs: Certainly the federal government
should be but even at the state and local level, there was a belief that politicians
were crooked, that they wasted people’s money and that they were always engaging in
boondoggles especially after what happened in 1830s, early 1840s with all the bankruptcies
of states and their canal projects that went belly up. That led to a bunch of constitutional
revisions and so forth. So from then on especially, there was a lot
of thinking among opinion leaders and lawyers and writers and what have you that government
was simply a factor that while people didn’t want to get rid of it, they wanted to have
government for kind of classical-liberal reasons. It’s not that – it had to be kept small.
It had to be limited or it would abuse its powers or waste a lot of people’s money. Progressivism altered that as the default
ideological background condition and as a result, it meant that the next time there
was a pretext for a great increase in government action as during World War One, then many
people were predisposed to favor. Well, let’s have the government do this. Let’s have
it do that. If we have to have a big bunch of ships built
by the government to fight the war, why don’t we have the government build housing for the
shipyard workers? It just went on and on. There was always some connection whereby some
immediate pretext like fighting the war could be hooked on to some other government activity. So when your government started buying a lot
of certain raw materials to produce ammunitions, well the next thing you know is that it bids
up the prices of copper and leather and burlap and various raw commodities. That creates
pressure because people who used those commodities in their own businesses, their costs are being
driven up. Then that creates pressure for government to use price controls. So in World War One, you ended up not with
comprehensive price controls but with selective price controls on these specific items whose
prices had been driven up by government’s own purchases on a large scale. You just see
this kind of thing again and again and again. It’s because nobody was stopping to say,
“Look, this is a bad idea for government to create a shipping board to regular ocean
shipping rates and working conditions of sailors.” That’s a bad idea. We should let markets
take care of those things because by the time this was done in 1916, opinion leaders thought,
“Oh, that’s a good idea.” We’ve got railroad regulation. Ship, that’s very similar.
Now shipping rates have been driven up because the British Navy is driven from the seas and
it’s very expensive for Americans to ship goods to Latin America or to bring raw materials
from there and other places. So people who had to incur shipping rates
were screaming for some kind of relief and … Trevor Burrus: And on and on and on. Robert Higgs: It just went on and on. Everyone
had a similar element like that which required that there be a predisposition to use government
in a way that it had never been used before. Aaron Ross Powell: So how intentional was
this ratchet effect in the sense that – so the way you’ve described it, it sounds almost
like government grew but people didn’t set out to grow government. They might have a
predisposition to say like, “OK, so government undertook this activity and that activity
had negative effects somewhere else. So well, we screwed that area up. So we should
go and fix it,” and you had people who naturally thought that government would be better at
fixing it than markets. So that’s what we ought to do. Then that lead to this ongoing
ratchet. But was there an intentional element going on behind it, either like within government,
like people saying here, “This crisis is an opportunity to grow our power or the power
of government. Let’s do it,” or people outside of government saying this crisis and
the things that’s leading to our way for me to use government to benefit myself? Robert Higgs: Both. There was some of each
and even when people entered into these expanded government activities, as a simple reaction
to the immediate problem at hand, they quickly realized that they might have a good deal
here. So later on, they defended its continuation or perhaps even its enlargement. You had for
example, after the War Industries Board, set priorities for purchases of different materials
the government was using so that the government’s contractors got the top claim on copper or
steel or lead or whatever it was. That system of priority was something that
a lot of businesses liked. They thought after the war, “Oh, we should keep this. We should
have somebody regulating industry because before we had all these dreadful price wars
and companies with …” Trevor Burrus: Destructive competition. Robert Higgs: Yeah, destructive competition. Trevor Burrus: I made some air quotes on that
… Robert Higgs: Always a lot of big businesses
complaining about destructive competition because the incumbents like things the way
they are. They want to be the producers. They don’t want to have to be fighting off entrants
all the time. So if there’s a regulator, particularly if they’re the guys doing the
regulation, they can take care of this. They can normalize everything and they can get
rid of uncertainty and destructive competition and all the rest of it. Trevor Burrus: That’s sort of one of you
– the sort of – I think at that point with Crisis and Leviathan, which is really
interesting because the first line of the book – now this is – maybe this was because
it was Oxford Press or – but the first line of the book in part one is – this is interesting
for now because you kind of went into sociology of the – I mean that’s a lot of what you
kind of ended up doing, how – what is the mindset of people in government? What are
the mindsets of people who work with government? What are they trying to achieve? But I think
maybe that started with Crisis and Leviathan. But the first line is, “We must have government.
Only government can form certain tasks successfully,” which is an interesting – I’m not sure
if you believe that now. You did seemingly. Robert Higgs: Well, when I wrote that, I believed
it in the usual way that it was taken. I still believe we had to have government – as I
say government as we know it and the government says they really are in the world coercive,
imposed. Trevor Burrus: Mean. Robert Higgs: You don’t have any choice
about these governments. We’re the government and you’re not. Do what we say. I continue
to believe we must have government to do a variety of things, to keep social order, to
suppress criminal behavior and to adjudicate disputes and for a variety of reasons. But
I do not believe that we must have government as we know it. We don’t have to have coercive,
imposed government, and I’m satisfied at this point that it is quite possible to have
non-coercive names of carrying out all the functions that really need to be carried out,
to have an orderly and prosperous society. That conclusion was a long time coming for
me. When I wrote Crisis and Leviathan, I was still very much a classical liberal, still
very much a neo-classical economist and those things gradually changed. I became more radical
over time. Aaron Ross Powell: Did that shift result from
just a lessening of practical concerns? So when you say wrote that sentence, the thought
that we must have government as we know it was because the alternative, while it would
be better from a moral perspective, might not work or did you have a shift in moral
reasoning that just said that I now think that it’s totally morally impermissible
to have this sort of course of government? Robert Higgs: Well, when I wrote that line,
I wasn’t even thinking about moral issues. I was thinking as an economist, I was thinking
what will work and like almost everybody else, I thought anarchy won’t work. Obviously
that’s out and I followed up that sentence in the same paragraph with a wonderful quotation
from Mises who’s explaining that government is not a bad thing. It’s actually the most
wonderful institution human beings have ever devised! That’s the opposite of what I now believe
that – what caused my thinking to change over the years was not so much learning more
about the literature of anarchy or a changing moral position although I didn’t make moral
changes. But it was simply that the more I learned about government as we know it, government
as it actually is, the more horrified I became to see government as it really is with your
eyes open. It’s something that I found appalling. It
just seemed more and more outrageous to me that these people who had a sign over their
house saying “government” were permitted, allowed, to commit criminal acts right and
left. Their very existence depended on criminality and everybody just took this for granted as
if there’s no problem here. Not only is there no problem but as Mises said, it’s
the greatest thing that ever happened. So eventually the moral outrage and the analytical
change of understanding that I acquired joined forces to me – to bring me to a position
where I’m just astonished that people put up with what they put up with. Aaron Ross Powell: Well, you – shortly before
we recorded this, you were giving a talk here at Cato on your book and during that, you
mentioned that things are actually a lot worse, so things in Washington, things with the government
are a lot worse than most people even think and most people tend to think no matter what
– where they are in the political spectrum that things aren’t great. Robert Higgs: Yeah. Aaron Ross Powell: So how are they worse?
And then relatedly when you talk about the people seemed to be OK with this, how much
do people know about how bad these things are? Robert Higgs: Well, I think they’re very
much worse than most people think or understand. As I say, if you had a microphone in everybody’s
office, the way you had in Nixon’s office, this would be a revolutionary news item for
people. If they knew what these guys are actually saying and doing – there’s one thing I’ve
always loved about the FBI, which is their sting operations against politicians. They
set these up so elaborately, so that they get just ironclad film, audio, documentary
evidence, so that they get these bastards just nailed to the wall. They can’t possibly
say they’re innocent and I just love it when these guys are revealed. But the trouble is you can’t do a sting
on every single politician on earth and as for the second part of your question, I think
most people know practically nothing about what really goes on in politics. They watch
the news. They hear politicians give speeches. That’s about the extent of it. There are
very few people who actually study and scrutinize politics at a level where they would begin
to think about these things and even those who do usually are overwhelmed by ideology. They start playing with one team or the other.
There is a lot of partisan political affiliation that muddies everybody’s water. They begin
to think, yeah, these progressive politicians are all sleazebags. But our guys are upright
Christian, God-fearing, mother-loving, apple-pie-eating – or vice versa. That’s just a total waste. That just means
your understanding is hopeless when you sign up to play for one of these teams. You don’t
understand that they’re both committing the same crimes. They just have a different
set of clients. Aaron Ross Powell: Are the crimes limited
to – I mean you talked a lot about politicians and politicians and all this stuff, but one
of the things you learn spending time in Washington is how much of the federal government is really
out of the politician’s hands. It’s the bureaucrats, the people and the agencies who
dominate so much. Are things as bad there as well? Robert Higgs: I think the politicians themselves
are the most crooked but … Trevor Burrus: Are there any good politicians
at this point? Do you think that it’s possible that anyone got here clean? You got to DC,
you got to federal office. Robert Higgs: It’s conceivable. I’m not
going to name any names. Trevor Burrus: But then the bureaucrats are
another level too. Robert Higgs: The problem I think is a little
different in the bureaucracy. The problem there is that these bureaucratic kingpins
have a lot of discretion and they have tremendous power and they’re pretty much entrenched.
It’s – you got to do some pretty outstanding stuff to get yourself removed from power. So they’re pretty confident they can wheel
and deal as they like and of course some of them get bought with cash in a plain brown
wrapper too. But that I don’t think is the typical way in which they’re corrupted.
They’re corrupted by just the ease with which they’re able to exercise power and
abuse their power and by being able to think of themselves as really being right, of not
eve committing crimes. But of doing good things for people, if not all people, at least the
right people. I think they’re corrupted by hubris more
than they’re corrupted by cash. The politicians of course, they’re not immune from hubris
by any means, but they’re constantly fighting to collect money to run the next election
and that means cash is really terribly importable to them in a way that it’s not important
to the bureaucrats. Trevor Burrus: Well, how culpable are – should
we regard people in government? I mean of any sort, whether it’s a DMV person up to
a DEA and then up to someone who files papers at the EPA. So we regard all of them as somewhat
culpable in this endeavor or do some of them get a free pass of some sort? Robert Higgs: Well, yeah, in a philosophical
level, if you work for government, you’re culpable. You’re living on stolen property.
But I don’t see any point in saying the janitor who cleans the offices in the Department
of Agriculture is a big criminal and of course a lot of the clerks and workday drones in
these bureaus, they don’t have anything much to do with policy at all. They’re just
shuffling papers. That doesn’t mean they don’t abuse people
they run into. Even the guy at the welfare office, he can give some grief to the poor
SOBs that go in there, trying to get a month’s worth of groceries. But at the same time, they don’t make policy.
They don’t set any rates or rules about how they’re going to deal with people. It’s
the policy makers, people who have some influence on making policy. I think too that a lot of the lawyers that
work in the government are – basically their job is to put a legal gloss, to throw a legal
garment over whatever kind of crimes their bosses want to commit. That to me is really
despicable because in theory, a lawyer’s highest obligation is to the law and to truth.
They all swear to this. But I think that’s kind of laughing stuff. If you had 10 lawyers
in a bar, they would get a good laugh out of that. Certainly if they had anything to do with
the criminal justice system where things work almost in the opposite way [Indiscernible].
It’s like built into the very tissue of what they do every day. But I think the culpability
question is not an easy one. It’s not a black and white thing and it’s possible
that there are even people at very high levels who aren’t – who don’t deserve to be
indicted. Sometimes they do the honest thing. They resign.
In World War One when Colonel House and company were wheedling the president toward the engagement
in the war, Williams Jennings Bryan the secretary of state and this – all this pro-British
policy and all this Anglophile thinking and he was appalled by that because in his circles,
these Brits were not good guys. The whole idea that the US is going to end up going
to save their cookies seemed wrong to him. It wasn’t that he was pro-German. He just
was pro-peace and he didn’t see a good reason for the US to engage in that war and he was
right. But it turned out that he couldn’t prevail. So he resigned. You notice that it’s
extremely rare that anybody in government in a high level ever resigns. People can do
this, that and be called to all kinds of names and whatever. They just stick it out. It’s
as if they can’t stand the idea of living without that power. Aaron Ross Powell: On that matter of peace
you write in the book, although I generally issue quarrels with fellow libertarians over
doctrinal matters, I draw the line at the question of war and peace. Robert Higgs: Yes, because war is, as I call
it, the master key. It unlocks every door where your liberties are protected. It opens
everything up to state dictation. It reduces everyone to the status of potential slavery.
The fact that millions of men were forced into the military, the state told them you
have a choice. You can go to prison where you will be horribly abused or you can go
into the army. Take your pick. On top of that of course, there were all the
propaganda, pressures and the pressures just – you know, their friends and relatives
and what have you because the country has been bamboozled into this kind of belief in
the nation state over time. So it’s not just that the state is out there driving people
to do what it wants. There are plenty of social pressures too. I remember when I was young
and thinking about, “What if I get drafted?” I certainly wasn’t going to go in Vietnam.
I wasn’t going to go into the army that was fighting Vietnam either. So I had to decide and I decided I would leave
the country if they tried to draft me. But the main thing I thought about at the time
was what effect that would have on my parents because I knew that would have a very devastating
effect on them. Even though they weren’t political people, that was a very unsavory
thing. They would have to face their own friends and neighbors. Their son is a draft dodger. So these pressures are real. There is a society
out there that by a whole variety of means has been molded into suitable raw material
for the rulers and they don’t know it. They think this is all how it ought to be and it’s
just unfortunate that people don’t have greater awareness of the reality of what’s
being done to them by people who have no right to do it. Aaron Ross Powell: Is war ever OK though?
If people have say an individual right to self-defense, don’t we have a right to collective
defense? Robert Higgs: You would if ever individual
had power to decide, if he would participate in that collective effort or not? Then it
would be fine. But it’s never that way. It’s never that way. It wasn’t even back
in the colonial days when there was militia. You didn’t have a choice. Everybody was
in the militia if you were able-bodied. So I think the problem when people try to
equate the right of self-defense was what governments do when they go to wars. They’re
just not the same thing. If you attack me and I fight back, I’m exercising my right
of self-defense. But if some guy is running around in Yemen and trying to overthrow the
government and the US government sends a drone over there and kills him and 50 other people
at the same time, that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with my self-defense or anybody
else’s. That’s just murder. There’s no other gloss you can put on it.
People accept this because they haven’t thought about it and in fact, many people
really don’t have a well-developed sense of moral thinking or moral reasoning. They
just do what is customary or what they’ve been told or what they’re used to. Habit
is the worst thing in the world for those of us who try to build a free society because
the thing that keeps most people in line is just habit. It has always been this way and
they would have to break away from the way things normally are, get out of line, get
themselves in trouble, make enemies. Well, no wonder there are so few mavericks. It’s
costly to oppose statism in a world infused by statism. Trevor Burrus: A lot of people read your new
book especially like the first section, first 80 pages or so, and also maybe listening to
this podcast and they think, “Oh, well, Professor Higgs is pretty angry.” You also
have a great essay in here called The Power of the State versus the Power of Love. So
is it to accurate to say you are angry in some way or are you more just trying to implore
people toward a friendly – toward love rather than force? Robert Higgs: Well, both actually. I am angry
at the state. I think it consists of a lot of people who are committing crimes. They’re
hurting a lot of people by doing so. When you think about what a great world it could
be, if we didn’t have these crimes being committed, if we didn’t have for example
so many government measures to hold down the poor, minimum wage laws, the licensing regulations. Trevor Burrus: Public schools. Robert Higgs: Public schools. It just goes
on and on and on. We really couldn’t even have a poverty problem in a country like the
United States if it weren’t for public policy. There are too many ways in which people could
get out of poverty and would, but not only do these policies keep them in poverty, but
these policies corrupt them. They make them think they deserve handouts. They make them
think that people owe them something. These are the kinds of beliefs that say a
hundred years ago or more when immigrants came to the United States, they don’t come
here thinking, “Oh, the people that are over there owe me something.” They just
wanted a chance to work. Trevor Burrus: Do you ever think that you
might be utopian about what freedom can do versus government? I think that there still
would be problems in freedom. People would still be poor. We would have to give an actual
accurate assessment … Robert Higgs: No, no. I’m not utopian. I
know that any world with human beings in it will have trouble. OK? That’s the nature
of the raw material. Some of us are no damn good. OK? So I certainly do not believe that
an abolition of government as we know it would bring about some kind of heaven on earth. But it would be vastly better than the world
we live in infused by state power and the way in which problems were dealt with would
be very different too. There wouldn’t be for example people punished for victimless
crimes and if you look at our world, punishment of people for victimless crimes is almost
like name of the game. Jeff Tucker wrote a piece just a few days
ago about what goes on in traffic court every day. It’s just robbery. You bring in there
all these people one after another who haven’t hurt anyone. They haven’t violated anyone’s
just rights and they’re just being ripped off altogether thousands of dollars. What
happened out there by St. Louis and that suburb and it was very much tied to the fact that
those little suburban governments live off stealing from people through giving traffic
tickets to people, hauling them into court or all kinds of stupid pretext. So the robber barons are not things that go
back to the Middle Ages. We have robber barons all over this country. Whole local governments,
whole police departments live off robbery, outright robbery. It’s not just the fact
that all taxation is robbery. It’s blatant robbery. People talk about, oh, in Mexico,
if a policeman stops you, he’s looking for a bribe. Well, sometimes he is. But what do
you think is happening here? It’s a much more elaborate system of extracting your money.
It’s no more decent in any way than that poor, ill-paid Mexican cops who wants 100
pesos to let you off. But people don’t understand it. They accept
that it’s the law. It’s the rules, blah, blah, blah. That’s crap! It’s robbery.
That’s all it is and I wish people would come to see it as that more than they do because
this is the kind of thing where something might be done. This isn’t like you have
to overthrow congress or replace the president or anything. It’s just you got to go to
city council and say, “You bastards better stop this or we’re voting your butts all
out of office!” Aaron Ross Powell: One of the really distressing
things about government and particularly powerful governments and big governments is – I mean
we can go to the city council and we can tell them we will vote them out. But we’re often
in the minority and even if we can get a group of people together, these things are so big
and so entrenched that the amount of control, the amount of say we have over it is vanishingly
small. What can – those of us who recognize the
immorality of a lot of this and see the system for what it really is, is there anything that
we can do in our daily lives to move the needle, to shift things more towards not that utopian
world but the – a better world? Robert Higgs: I think there are a lot of things
that can be done. Many things can be done in the form of opting out or relocating yourself,
adjusting somehow how you live, where you live, what you do. People don’t very often
at least think about their lives in that way. They don’t think – when they think, “Where
will I live? What job will I pursue?” They don’t think about, “Well, how exposed
am I to the evils of the state?” But when you can get them to think in that
way, they often find there are a lot of things they can do to evade, avoid, lower the risks.
When they do that, they in a sense become believers who can sort of talk to their friends,
relatives and neighbors and say, “Look, you don’t have to put up with this stuff.”
You make a missionary out of him as it were, as soon as they discover that they can escape
some of the abuse. I know friends. I have good personal friends
who they don’t get involved in libertarian activities or groups or anything like that,
but they live their lives in a way that is constructed to maximize their actual freedom
and avoid government abuse, to make their tax bill as small as possible, to make their
exposure to government regulation as small as possible, to do all sorts of things that
are within the grasp of most people if they thought about working toward that. So there are ways of opting out. I mentioned
in my talk earlier today home schooling, which has been tremendously successful in removing
about 10 percent of the children in the country from the horrors of the government schools
and there’s plenty more room for home schooling or for private schooling. I think a lot of people are dissuaded from
doing home schooling or private schooling by the expenses and by the time demands and
by feeling they’re not qualified. But I think if you can get people to thinking about
just how bad it’s going to be in the public schools – now the public schools are like
prisons, literally. Trevor Burrus: In some areas. Robert Higgs: You go through metal detectors.
There are security people in the corridors. Would you want to send your child to a place
like that every day? It’s like, OK, Sonny, it’s time to put your six hours in the city
jail. Off you go. Have a good day! I don’t know why people do this except that it’s
just inconvenient to pursue the alternative. But the truth is when you get started, you
get a critical mass. It’s not as hard as you think. We’ve home schooled our kids,
my step kids that I have, and they – the home schoolers get together and cooperate
with each other in so many ways that people aren’t aware of, to give certain classes
to the kids, to give activities to them, to really flesh out a nice educational experience.
It’s not that every day they’re – you got to have six hours of class time as it
were with mom or dad sitting there working with the kids. There’s a lot of online stuff you can do
now, tremendous resources for that, CDs. You know, you name it. It’s just all sorts of
things that home schoolers can do and when they do that, they take their children out
of the control of these wicked school authorities who are in some ways the most irresponsible
people I can think of. They’re just sick with the idea of following rules no matter
how much sense they make. A lot of them are just stupidly P.C. They ram ideas about the
environment and all sorts of discrimination and what have you down the throats of the
kids and of course kids are not as easy as people might think. If a kid has a brain in
his head by the time he’s eight, he begins to see what’s being done to him to some
extent. But not all of them. A lot of them just end up being affected by what’s done
to them in the government schools. Trevor Burrus: Well, that makes me think of
the question that reflects a bunch of these ideas which is, “What is worse, competent
government, highly competent government that’s really good at accomplishing its goals no
matter how nefarious they might be or incompetent government, ones that fail in the process
of trying to accomplish their goals?” Robert Higgs: Well, certainly incompetence
is better in many departments of government. Unfortunately in some cases where you really
would love incompetence like the police, the incompetence becomes fatal. They send a SWAT
team to the wrong address very often for example. So you really wish they had been more competent
at a time like that even though I don’t want them going to anybody’s address to
serve a more … Trevor Burrus: But you would like the NSA
to be less competent … Robert Higgs: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I would
like them to be utterly incompetent. They just hear static when they plug in, if it
were up to me. Trevor Burrus: So do you think things are
– do you have any optimism at all or do you think things are just kind of circling
the drain? Robert Higgs: Well, there’s always hope.
Sometimes people listen to me and they say, “This guy has no hope.” That’s not true.
There’s always hope. We’re alive. We still got brains in our head. We may wake up and
do something someday. It’s not inconceivable. But what are the odds? I think the odds are
not good. One gentleman in my talk today was pointing out all the positive trends about
life expectancies and wealth and what have you. There’s no [Indiscernible] that the United
States and other advanced welfare-warfare states are wealthy, people have a high level
of living. They’re constantly entertained. They have marvelous electronic toys. Everybody
from four years old up has a smart phone now and so yeah, it looks wonderful in some ways. But on the other hand, it’s a police state
and the police state part of it gets worse every day. It doesn’t seem to matter what
anybody says about it. It’s as if all the protests is just part of the ritual dance.
You even have members of congress. They stand up and they make a speech or they go in and
introduce a bill or something. But what is different? What has the NSA stopped doing?
I think it started doing a lot more in the past 10 years than it stopped doing. So I really do believe that there’s a part
of government and this is the heart of it, the war, intelligence, foreign policy part,
that really runs on its own power, that it’s really not under effective control. I wonder
sometimes even how much control the president of the United States has over some of these
people. Because what can he do? He issues an order to the head of the NSA. How is he
going to know if that order was really carried out? Of course the guy will say, “Yes, sir.
Yes, sir.” But maybe he won’t do anything. How is the president going to know? He’s
not a techno genius. He has got other things to do. He has got a golf game. Trevor Burrus: So things could get better
but likely not. Robert Higgs: Well, that’s the short term
view I hold in this country. There are parts of the world where things are getting better
in most ways and that’s glorious. The fact that China went from being a centrally-planned
communist country to being a semi-open-fascist country, that was a huge improvement for hundreds
of millions of people. That one change probably did more to improve human well-being than
any other single thing we can think of. Look at just the numbers of people that benefited.
People don’t have famines anymore in China. What a glorious thing! They used to starve
by the scores of millions when they had a famine. They had them every once in a while.
Same in India. India is not having famines anymore. They’ve got the technology to avoid
that. So yeah, things are getting much better in some ways. Has anybody created a free society? Hell no!
Not even close. Are most of the advanced countries moving in the wrong direction? Yes! Their
freedoms are diminishing rather than increasing. It’s not that it’s all one way. There’s
a mixed picture all the time. Some things go worse. Some things get better. But you
have to evaluate the overall picture and you have to decide what’s important to you.
Is it important that you have more electronic toys or is it important that you not have
cops breaking into people’s houses with hand grenades to serve warrants? So to me, I don’t want to live in a police
state and if I have to go somewhere and live in relatively primitive conditions, that’s
an improvement for me. I don’t think many people would like it. They wouldn’t consider
that improvement. I’m sorry. They don’t because that’s the crux of the thing. At
ground level, it’s the fact that people don’t love liberty very much and when they
have to pay a price for it, they won’t pay much. Until that changes, it’s hard to see
how we can ever have much freedom. Trevor Burrus: Thank you for listening. Free
Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web
at www.Libertarianism.org.

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