TGIF: Clueless Presidential Candidates

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are no friends of liberty. This is not breaking news, of course. In fact, I can’t think of a less controversial statement: unlike past Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, they don’t even pay lip service to liberty. I can’t recall either of them talking about the need to roll back government power to give individuals more room to make their own decisions. Clinton believes in choice only in the matter of ending pregnancies. I don’t disagree, but is that the only freedom of choice worth protecting. Trump says nothing about freedom in any area of life. Even when he talks about curtailing business regulation, he does so purely as a way to stimulate the economy. Like Clinton, he has no ear for liberty.

So it comes as no surprise that these candidates oppose the freedom to trade and the freedom to move (immigration) without the government’s permission, two intimately related rights that all individuals possess by their nature. (Technically, we have only one right, the right to be free from aggression, all other legitimate rights being implications of that one.) The right to trade and the right to move are entailed by the principle of self-ownership, which is the opposite of slavery. (The abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison said, “Every slave is a stolen man; every slaveholder is a man stealer.” Abraham Lincoln said, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Conversely, if self-ownership isn’t right, then nothing is right. Some truths are self-evident; we can know them directly.)

In contrast, Clinton and Trump both believe that government — that organization of mere mortals who, by one dubious method or another, have been allowed to don the mantle of political legitimacy and to command obedience on pain of imprisonment even of those who never consented to the preposterous arrangement — should oversee Americans’ exchanges with people who live beyond the arbitrary boundaries of the United States, some of whom prefer to deal with Americans from afar (by importing and exporting goods) and some of whom prefer to deal with Americans in person (by relocating and doing their buying and selling up close). What business is it of the politicians and bureaucrats who constitute the state? None at all. Yet the pursuers of power vow to use violence against those who would defy their decrees against freedom of trade and movement. As Michael Huemer points out, if you or I were to do what Clinton and Trump promise to order armed men and women with badges to do, we’d be arrested and most people would cheer.

Clinton and Trump justify their restrictions on Americans’ and other people’s freedom by invoking the national interest. Trump says without such restrictions, we have no country. But even if one could define national interest, why should they get to define it and impose their views on the rest of us? Why can’t each of us define it through our peaceful voluntary interactions with others? That would leave little to do for those who lust after power, but so what? I’m sure if they try, Hillary and Donald could find people to voluntarily submit to their megalomaniacal schemes. They should leave the rest of us alone.

There is just no getting around the fact that if one believes in the self-evident inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then one cannot logically support violent government interference with peaceful transactions among people, no matter where they live or originated. Without the freedom to trade and move unencumbered by the state, liberty is a hollow thing, a sham, cruel hoax. (A few libertarians mistakenly equate the freedom to move with trespass on private property and so oppose it. That makes as much sense as equating free trade with forced exchange. The assumption that Americans wouldn’t welcome immigrants for all sorts of reasons, commercial and personal, is patently ridiculous, and the existence of nominally state-owned property is not a valid excuse for interference. As the for argument that the freedom to move can’t be accommodated by a welfare state — how does one propose to abolish the welfare state if it is spared the stresses that freedom would create?)

Discussions of trade and immigration get bogged down in theoretical and empirical details about the consequences for the balance of trade, jobs, wages, the like. Suffice it to say that those who support government prohibitions get it wrong. They persistently commit the broken-window fallacy, exposed by Frederic Bastiat; they look only at the most immediate effects of economic change and government policy without taking account of the longer term effects on society. The boarded-up factory is an obvious eyesore that is easily (though perhaps erroneously) attributed to a dropping of trade barriers, while the dispersed start-up businesses and new products made possible when consumers save money by buying less-expensive imports go largely unnoticed and unattributed to trade. A low-skilled American (no doubt the product of rotten government schools) notices that people who speak little English are doing work he might do, while less noticed are the immigrants who, while striving to improve their lives, benefit others by starting business and buying consumer goods. Trade and immigration are not zero-sum games, as Clinton and Trump — presumptuous social engineers both — would have us believe.

Clinton and Trump see government — violence, that is, — as the solution to every problem, which government itself either has caused or exacerbated. That’s another way of saying they are clueless about the crucial role freedom plays in individual and social flourishing.

Most alarming of all, few people seem to care. What can libertarians do about that?

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan