By Robert P. Murphy
For many years I—along with many of you, I’m sure—have noticed that the various attacks on our freedoms have seemed coordinated. Whatever the particular issue—be it the economy, terrorism, the environment, obesity, education, retirement, drug abuse, police brutality, or the novel coronavirus—it always seems like the “answer” is to grow the power of the State and further erode individual liberty.
As someone who’s been fighting in the war of ideas since college, I have come to a regrettable conclusion: My side is getting trounced. Even though the defenders of human liberty have the best arguments, both theoretical and empirical, on these various issues, the “front” on the battlefield keeps shifting, while we continually retreat. Even in those arenas where there have been definite improvements, most notably the reduction in marginal income tax rates in the United States (and in many other countries) dating from the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, it seems we are just being softened up before the kill: We’ve got major economists clamoring for confiscatory rates in the 70%+ range, while political figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are openly calling to eliminate billionaires. If Biden wins the election, it’s anybody’s guess how large of a tax hike his administration would push through.
“This Time Is Different”
Besides noting the gradual erosion, I must also highlight the fact that when a crisis strikes, the public still rushes to the arms of Big Brother. This happened after the 9/11 attacks, the financial crisis in 2008, and of course earlier this year with Covid-19. On each occasion, I was amazed at how readily the American public trusted whatever information their political leaders spooned out, even though polls show that this same public endorses “conspiracy theories” about the assassination of JFK. In other words, Americans believe that previous generations of U.S. officials would implement a coup and then cover it up, but right now our government surely wouldn’t be lying to us about such and-such when it’s so important.
Widening the Scope of Combat
What these episodes have taught me is that the battle of ideas is on much broader territory than I had been fighting. It didn’t matter how much I, as an economist, could write persuasive essays spelling out, with airtight logic, that interest rates perform a social role and that “easy” Fed policy just sets up another boom-bust cycle. Nope, if the public has been taught in their history classes as kids that the Great Depression was caused by wildcat free market forces, then they are going to fall hook, line, and sinker for the casual claims that Ben Bernanke’s massive rounds of Quantitative Easing “prevented another Depression.”
More generally, I’ve come to realize that focusing on economics, or even politics, is not enough. As Andrew Breitbart famously put it: “Politics is downstream from culture.” Because I am a trained economist, and frankly had no idea how to “model” or think rigorously about changing cultural values, I resisted this insight.
But, inadequate though I feel in the task, I have decided to embark on a three-part series here in the LMR, in order to help shed light on these trends. As I’ll explain, it’s not a coincidence that the assault on our liberties seems coordinated. On the contrary, this has been a dedicated campaign, particularly coming from avowed socialists.
And lest the reader worry that I’m spinning out “conspiracy theories”: No, as I’ll document, these people are quite open about their agenda and strategy for political success. There’s nothing hidden about it.
An Illustrative Example: Naomi Klein on Climate Change
Later in this essay I’m going to turn the clock back to the formation of the public (i.e. government) school system in the United States, as I start my historical journey in this 3-part series. But let me first take a more recent example that epitomizes the pattern I’m trying to document.
Specifically, let me quote from Naomi Klein’s 2015 book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs. the Climate. As you’ll see, Klein admits that she only began championing the cause of climate change hen she realized how much it advanced with her pre-existing political agenda. You rarely see such frankness, which is why I hope the reader will forgive me for a long excerpt:
I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the continued existence of winter proves it’s all a hoax. But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it…
I have begun to understand how climate change—if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters—could become a galvanising force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well. The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity, and on a model that is more democratic and less centralized than the models of the past. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change, beyond “mitigating” and “adapting” to it in the grim language of the United Nations. It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now.
Once the lens shifted from one of crisis to possibility, I discovered that I no longer feared immersing myself in the scientific reality of the climate threat. And like many others, I have begun to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change—how it could be the best argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to re-claim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful new free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; and to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water. All of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them.
There is a rich populist history of winning big victories for social and economic justice in the midst of large-scale crises. These include, most notably, the policies of the New Deal after the market crash of 1929 and the birth of countless social programs after the second world war…
I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity on an even greater scale. [Naomi Klein, bold added.]1
Now to be sure, Klein didn’t actually say, “I don’t think climate change is a threat, I’m just making it up in order to push through my progressive agenda.” But surely we can see the incentive to exaggerate the threat—even to fool one’s self, as it were—when it is admittedly “the best argument progressives have ever had.”
This is the general phenomenon that I am going to document during this 3-part series. Going back to the 1800s, we can find example after example of the enemies of capitalism openly admitting that their support for some seemingly innocuous tenet of “social justice” is actually tied to the achievement of their political ends.
To reiterate, the overall purpose of this investigation is to shed light on why it is that the defenders of capitalism always seem to be under a coordinated assault on multiple fronts. The answer is: because they are.
The Origins of the Public School in the U.S.
I went to Hillsdale College because it taught Austrian Economics—indeed, it was the home of the personal book collection of Ludwig von Mises. For one of my classes, I wrote a paper on the origins of the public school (in the United States). My professor (Gary Wolfram) liked it so much that he told me to submit it to the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), where it was published in the Freeman.2
Although the ostensible justifications for establishing public (i.e. government) schools was to educate the poor, one of the more specific motivations was the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Yet beyond these religious disputes, in my research I discovered that the undisputed father of the U.S. public school—Horace Mann—wrote some pretty shocking things about his pet project.
For example, in his 1891 annual report to the Boston authorities in his capacity as the Secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts,3 Mann said:
Our common schools are a system of unsurpassable grandeur and efficiency. Their influences reach, with more or less directness and intensity, all the children belonging to the State,—children who are soon to be the State. They act upon these children at the most impressible period of their existence, —imparting qualities of mind and heart which will be magnified by diffusion, and deepened by time, until they will be evolved into national character…and, at last, will tamp their ineffaceable seal upon our history. [Mann, bold added.]
In my paper I also quoted from Henry Barnard, arguably the second most important figure behind the drive for U.S. public schools, who wrote:
No one at all familiar with the deficient household arrangements and deranged machinery of domestic life, of the extreme poor, and ignorant, to say nothing of the intemperate—of the examples of rude manners, impure and profane language, and all the vicious habits of low bred idleness—can doubt, that it is better for children to be removed as early and as long as possible from such scenes and examples.
Thus we see that from its very inception, the U.S. public school system wasn’t merely an innocuous program for teaching poor kids how to read and multiply. It was quite consciously a tool for progressives to instill each generation of children with civic values and modes of thought that they weren’t going to get from their parents.
The Fabian Society
I will close out this first article with a discussion of the famous Fabian Society, which was founded by a group of British socialist intellectuals in 1884, most notably including Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The Society was named in honor of the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, who was tasked with defending Rome from the Carthaginian army led by Hannibal.
Fabius knew that if he tried a direct assault on Hannibal, he would be routed and Rome would fall. Therefore Fabius used delaying tactics to wage a war of attrition. For example, Fabius might engage in quick raids against Hannibal’s supply lines, which would stall the Carthaginian invasion while avoiding exposing the Roman soldiers to attack.
In the context of British politics, the Fabians knew that the masses were not yet ready for socialism. If they tried to implement it directly, it would be voted down. Therefore, the Fabians advocated gradual measures. In their initial pamphlets they called for a minimum wage, universal health care, and a welfare state along the Prussian model. The Fabians literally founded the British Labour Party in 1900. (The Fabian Society also founded the London School of Economics in 1895. The existence of trained economists who were also “coincidentally” socialists should therefore be less of a surprise.)
As the example of the Fabian Society showcases, there is no mystery when it comes to the constant expansion of State power. We shouldn’t wonder why it is, that whenever you give the government an inch, it takes a mile. That’s the plan.
As Jon Perdue reports, “The logo of the Fabian Society, a tortoise, represented the group’s predilection for a slow, imperceptible transition to socialism…” This seems pretty harmless, right? But wait, there’s more: “…while its coat of arms, a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, represented its preferred methodology for achieving its goal.”4
Yes, you read that right. The actual coat of arms for the Fabian Society was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We’ve included a photo of it.
Quotes from Famous Fabians
Again, one of the themes in this series is that I am not spinning out a “conspiracy theory,” because these people aren’t really hiding what they’re doing. Even with the Fabians, they’re not taking great pains to keep their socialist agenda a secret—after all, a true wolf in sheep’s clothing doesn’t adopt that as his coat of arms!
Let me end the article by quoting from three of the most famous intellectuals who were members of the Fabian Society. The first is from Bertrand Russell, the famous British mathematical logician and philosopher, who admittedly was only briefly a member of the Society. (He left when he was concerned that the Fabian stance on foreign policy would lead to war with Germany.) In his renowned 1952 booklet, The Impact of Science on Society, Russell (in)famously wrote:
I think the subject which will be of most importance politically is mass psychology…Its importance has been enormously increased by the growth of modern methods of propaganda. Of these the most influential is what is called “education.” Religion plays a part, though a diminishing one; the Press, the cinema and the radio play an increasing part…
…It may be hoped that in time anybody will be able to persuade anybody of anything if he can catch the patient young and is provided by the State with money and equipment.
The subject will make great strides when it is taken up by scientists under a scientific dictatorship…The social psychologists of the future will have a number of classes of school children on whom they will try different methods of producing an unshakable conviction that snow is black. Various results will soon be arrived at. First, that the influence of home is obstructive. Second, that not much can be done unless indoctrination begins before the age of ten. Third, that verses set to music and repeatedly intoned are very effective. Fourth, that the opinion that snow is white must be held to show a morbid taste for eccentricity. But I anticipate. It is for future scientists to make these maxims precise and discover exactly how much it costs per head to make children believe that snow is black, and how much less it would cost to make them believe it is dark grey.
Although this science will be diligently studied, it will be rigidly confined to the governing class. The populace will not be allowed to know how its convictions were generated. When the technique has been perfected, every government that has been in charge of education for a generation will be able to control its subjects securely without the need of armies or policemen. [Russell, bold added.]5
Although the above quotation is real—I even bought a copy of Russell’s booklet myself, just to make sure that people on the internet weren’t misquoting him—I do hasten to add that in context, it’s not as bad as it sounds (even though it’s still pretty bad). Although it sounds as if he’s endorsing these trends in the block quotation, if you sit down and read his essays, you’ll see that that’s not quite what he’s doing. In his very British style, Russell is mostly just telling the reader what to expect, but admittedly he doesn’t seem too alarmed by it, does he?
As for the famous author H.G. Wells, he too was a member of the Fabian Society, and for longer than Russell. (Even Wells eventually split with the group.) As I say folks, this stuff is all in the open. Wells was a supporter of one-world government. He wrote a book in 1928 called The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution and another in 1940 called The New World Order. His overall strategy—like the Fabians in general—was to achieve one-world government with baby steps.
But perhaps the most quintessential member of the Fabian Society was the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Far from being a sweet old socialist who just wants everybody to get enough to eat, Shaw—like many progressives of his time—was an open advocate of eugenics. Here are some choice quotations from Shaw,6 demonstrating his value system:
Mussolini, Kemal, Pilsudski, Hitler and the rest can all depend on me to judge them by their ability to deliver the goods and not by … comfortable notions of freedom. Stalin has delivered the goods to an extent that seemed impossible ten years ago; and I take off my hat to him accordingly. (1934)
I don’t want to punish anybody, but there are an extraordinary number of people who I might want to kill…I think it would be a good thing to make everybody come before a properly appointed board just as he might come before the income tax commissioner and say every 5 years or every 7 years…Just put them there and say: ‘Sir,’ –or ‘madam,’– ‘will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little bit more then clearly we cannot use the big organisation of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive. Because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.’ (1931)
We ought to tackle the Jewish question by admitting the right of States to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains that they think undesirable, but insisting that they should do it as humanely as they can afford to, and not shock civilization by such misdemeanors as the expulsion and robbery of Einstein. (Letter to Beatrice Webb, 1938)
Now take Stalin himself. He is ‘neither duke nor peer’, not a king, not a chancellor, not a dictator, not a Prime Minister, not an archbishop, not entitled to salutes enforced by youths in coloured shirts, but simply secretary of the supreme controlling organ of the hierarchy, subject to dismissal at five minutes’ notice if he does not give satisfaction. This position he has attained through the survival of the fittest, and has held through the years of the most appalling vicissitudes that ever attended the birth pangs of a new civilisation. (1934)
The defender of economic and civil liberties needs to realize that the forces on the Left seeking to overthrow capitalism are not fighting fairly. Some of their leading intellectuals—going back more than a century—have quite openly advocated taking control of various institutions—most notably the schools—in order to transform public opinion and gradually introduce socialism. Although some Fabians publicly profess a desire to achieve their goals democratically, it is clear from some of their leading members that violence isn’t verboten per se; it’s just sometimes not tactically wise.
In the next installment I will focus on the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, home of the so-called cultural Marxists. These were the master theorists of achieving socialism through conquering social and cultural institutions first, rather than directly putting the matter up to a vote.
1. The block quotation is actually drawn from a Guardian article excerpting from Naomi Klein’s 2015 book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs. the Climate. The Guardian article is available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/06/dont-look-away-now-the-climate-crisisneeds-you
2. My 1998 FEE article is available online at: https://fee.org/articles/the-origins-of-the-public-school/
3. The excerpts from Horace Mann’s 1891 report are available at: https://books.google.com/books/about/Annual_Reports_of_the_Secretary_of_the_B.html?id=RfwAAAAAYAAJ
4. Perdue, Jon B. (2012). The War of All the People: The Nexus of Latin American Radicalism and Middle Eastern Terrorism (1st ed.). Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, p. 97. (Quoted in Wikpedia entry on “Fabian Society.”)
5. Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society, Routledge Classics, 1952, pp. 27-28.
6. George Bernard Shaw quotations from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Bernard_Shaw