George Will on Upholding the Idea of Liberty

George Will recently gave the keynote speech at the dinner for the 2006 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, which was given to former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar. A hard-copy version of the speech was published in the Summer 2006 edition of Cato’s Letter; it is available online only via the Cato Institute’s Audio Program. Here are some excerpts:

…in the words of M. Stanton Evans, a modern liberal is someone who doesn’t care what you do as long as it’s compulsory…O’Sullivan’s Law — named after John O’Sullivan, former editor of National Review — which is that any institution that is not libertarian and classically liberal will, over time, become collectivist and statist, unless it is anchored in the kind of ideology that the Cato Institute vivifies in Washington.
The backsliding that we are witnessing today on the part of the party we formerly associated with the defense of liberty is astonishing and disheartening…
What’s wrong with this picture is that the liberal and conservative arguments have become radically blurred. Modern conservatism was defined in reaction against the New Deal and renewed in reaction against the Great Society. Conservatives spoke the language of Jefferson. They believed that limited government, government not in the grip of hubris and what Hayek called the fatal conceit of the ability to anticipate and control the future, governs best.
But by the year 2000, we had forgotten that argument. The two candidates that year agreed that the task of the next President would be to strengthen and expand the emblematic achievements of the New Deal, Social Security, Medicare. Something had gone radically wrong, and I think I know what it is.
We, as a country, are now in the grip of five kinds of politics that I want very briefly to discuss, if only to alarm you and depress you. I call them the politics of assuming a ladder, the politics of rent seeking, otherwise known as the war against Wal-Mart; the politics of learned dependency; the politics of speech rationing, and politics of orchid building. [NB: Will’s thoughts on these five kinds of politics can be found in the Extended Entry below.] Here is the good news, and it is profoundly good. First of all, as Mart Laar, our honoree tonight, can tell you, all of us in this room live in a world fundamentally unlike the world in which our parents lived. We live in a world where the American model is the only serious model for running a modern society. Fascism is gone. Communism is gone. Socialism is gone. Al-Qaeda has no rival model of modernity. Al-Qaeda is a howl of rage against modernity.
We had an uncommonly clear social experiment after the Second World War. We divided the city of Berlin, the country of Germany, the continent of Europe, indeed, the whole world, and had a test. On the one side, the collectivist model, a society run by command, by elites with a monopoly on information. On the other side, what deserves to be called the American model. It has the maximum dispersal of decisionmaking based on the maximum dispersal of information, with markets allocating wealth and opportunity. The results are in. They’re decisive. We’re here. They’re gone. The Soviet Union tried to plant Marxism in Europe with bayonets for 70 years. Today there are more Marxists on the Harvard faculty than there are in Eastern Europe…
…Social learning is slow, but it does occur, and it is driven by institutions like Cato.
Furthermore, the American people remain astonishingly sound in their fundamental values. They are not egalitarians beyond their strong belief in equality of opportunity, not result…
Well, so far, so good. We have endured. And we have endured because institutions like Cato and people like Milton Friedman, astonishing force multipliers, take in the basic ideas of the American founding, the basic principles of limited government, and demonstrate their continuing relevance and applicability to the modern world…
The moral of the story is that liberty is an acquired taste. We have acquired it. We can lose it. But we won’t lose it as long as we continue to honor people the way we are honoring one tonight and the way the Cato Institute honors our Founders by keeping their ideas vivid.

More on the American Founding here and here. Will’s description of the five kinds of politics follows below.


First, the politics of assuming a ladder. An old economics joke tells of an economist and a friend who are walking down a road and fall into a pit. The regular guy says, “We can’t get out.” And the economist replies, “Not to worry, we just assume a ladder.” We have just had the last presidential election before the first of 77 million baby boomers begin to retire. They will put strains on a welfare state that, as currently configured, cannot endure. And so the entitlement advocates are assuming a ladder, assuming that something will happen to fix the problem.
It is a tremendous problem that the country will not face. In 1940, there were 42 workers for every retiree. Today there are 3.1 workers for every retiree. There will be, in 2030, 2.1 workers for every retiree, assuming that we have 900,000 immigrants that year and very year into the future. This is why the politics of assuming a ladder of evasion and intellectual cowardice cannot go on…


Funding the welfare state that Americans seem to want requires a dynamic economy. And rent seeking — the bending of public power to confer an advantage on a private party — inhibits the economy. We see the spirit of modern rent seeking in the jihad today against Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the most prodigious job-creator in world history. Wal-Mart has 1.3 million employees, more than the American military. Wal-Mart, when it enters a rural community, lowers the general price level 8 percent. Wal-Mart, according to a McKinsey & Company study, was responsible for one-quarter of the entire nation’s productivity growth…
But Wal-Mart makes life difficult for its vendors, who have to become more efficient. It makes life difficult for the traditional retailers down on Main Street. We could protect those Main Street retailers, just as we could have protected the American automobile industry from the best thing that ever happened to it and to American consumers: the Japanese automobile industry. We could have protected Delta and Northwest and American and United from JetBlue and Southwest. But we cannot do that sort of thing and have a dynamic economy, providing upward mobility for the American People and supporting the kind of government that, alas, a good many people want to have. We cannot have the politics of rent seeking and continue to be a prosperous and free country.


Nor can we have the politics of learned dependency. Fewer and fewer people paying for a government that more and more people are getting things from. That is what economists call a situation of moral hazard, a situation in which the incentives are for perverse behavior. That is a situation in which there is no incentive for limited government.
One percent of the income tax payers pay 35% of the income tax; the top 5 percent pay 55 percent; the bottom 50 percent of income earners in the country pay less than 4 percent of the income tax: 40 percent of the adult population in the country are not participating in the income tax at all. And still people make political careers and presidential campaigns based on the politics of envy, the idea that the rich are oppressing everyone else and not doing their fair share. Fortunately, the American people are not an envious people. We are an aspirational people…


There is no greater threat to liberty in this country than the fourth kind of politics, the politics of speech rationing. It is commonly called campaign finance reform, but it’s nothing of the sort. It is simply the assertion of the government of a new, audacious right: the right to determine the timing, content, and amount of political advocacy about the government. It is the most astonishing slow-motion — although it is gaining speed — repeal of the First Amendment anyone could imagine…


…Realism…brings me to the fifth kind of politics, what I call the politics of orchard building. In government, that means modesty in your expectations of what government can do. The law of unintended consequences dictates that the actual consequences of large government actions are apt to be larger than and contrary to the intended consequences.
We see this today in Iraq. I’m not here to rehearse the arguments about how we got in and all the rest. I am fascinated, however, by the assumption we made that after the obviously easy part, which was decapitating the Hussein regime, the rest would be easy — the assumption that liberty is easy.
It’s an American idea, sweet tempered, kind, optimistic, generous, well-intentioned, utterly American and quite preposterous.
Tony Blair — a good American — gave a speech about values to a joint session of Congress three months after Baghdad fell. He said that our values are not Western values, they are values shared by ordinary people everywhere. False. The world is full of ordinary people who do not define freedom as we do, who do not value it as we do, who prefer piety, ethnic purity, religious solidarity, military glory, or the security of despotism. There are all kinds of competing values in the world, and liberty has to be fought for and argued for and defined. It is a learned and acquired taste. And the Cato Institute exists to help people learn it and help people to acquire that taste. But it is not easy…
The idea that Iraq was going to be easy fails to recognize the genius of the American founding, the durability of these ideas and why they’ve been advocated and protected by people like Milton Friedman. And when you hear the phrase “nation building” remember, it is as preposterous as the phrase “orchid building.” Nations are not built from Tinker Toys and erector sets. They are complicated, organic growths, just as orchards are. And they are not built either.

Show your support for Anchor Rising with a 25-cent-per-day subscription.