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Freedom is Not “Public Policy”: Some Excerpts

I did some leisurely reading last night, which I haven’t done in some time. I read some essays from Lew Rockwell’s “The Left, The Right, & The State.”  I’ve read it before, but it’s always good to go back to the basics. Here are some excerpts from the essay “Freedom is Not ‘Public Policy.'”

Among the greatest failures of the free-market intellectual movement has been allowing its ideas to be categorized as a “public policy” option. The formulation implies a concession that it is up to the state—its managers and kept intellectuals—to decide how, when, and where freedom is to be permitted. It further implies that the purpose of freedom, private ownership, and market incentives is the superior management of society, that is, to allow the current regime to operate more efficiently.

Nice collection of essays, worth the time to read here and there.
Nice collection of essays, worth the time to read here and there.

This kind of thinking has been around a while. Murray Rothbard had noted back in the 1950s that economists, even those favoring markets, had become “efficiency experts for the state.” There is a small step from that unfortunate stance to providing a free-market rhetorical cover for the state to do what it wants to do anyway, which is surely the ultimate compromise.

Such was at the heart of the Reagan Revolution, when tax cuts were first proposed as a tool to bring in more revenue. Who said that the purpose of freedom was to ensure more lavish funding for the state? And what if the funding didn’t materialize? Does that mean that the tax cuts failed? Twenty years later, of course, we see that the strategy was a disaster because it turned out that there is a far surer way to collect more revenue: to collect more revenue.

There are many examples of this awful concession operating today. In policy circles, people use the word privatization to mean not the bowing out of government from a particular aspect of social and economic life, but merely the contracting out of statist priorities to politically connected private enterprise.

School vouchers and Social Security “privatization” are the most notorious examples at the national level. At the state and local levels, any government contract awarded to a grafting business interest is deemed “privatization.” A Washington think tank recently proposed that the CIA could become more efficient by contracting out to Washington think tanks.

What’s at stake is the very conception of the role of freedom in political, economic, and social life. Do we regard freedom as a useful device within the existing structure, or as an alternative to the current political system? This is not a matter of bickering libertarian sects. The very future of the idea of free markets is at stake.


We hear that if we “privatize” the schools with vouchers and other gimmicks, they will be cheaper to run and test scores will go up. We are told that if we “privatize” Social Security, it will produce higher returns for seniors. Here, the establishment libertarian policy people are saying: socialism is possible after all, so long as it is run by private enterprise!

In truth, if the education sector were ever completely in private hands, nothing like the current system would continue to exist. Most administrators would be without jobs in the school system. The schools themselves might become retail centers. Education would be radically decentralized and mixed with private enterprise. Schools would come and go. Teacher salaries would probably plummet. No one would have a right to an education guaranteed by the state. The state could ask for and expect no content or results from education at any level.


A hundred years ago, a person who proposed such a system would have been considered a socialist. Today, he is a “libertarian public policy expert.” If what you desire is true free-market reform, don’t call it privatization. We need to stop the present racket. Under real market reforms, no one would be looted and no one would be guaranteed anything. The slogan should be: stop the theft.

Note: I personally don’t mind the word “privatization.” It just needs to be defined correctly to represent the private ownership –which includes the decision making authority– of goods and services. In these sense then, the “privatization” of public services, is not really privatized in the most meaningful sense, but is only privatized nominally and strategically to enforce, not to challenge, the statist status quo.

Published in C.Jay Engel