Liberty and Intervention
To the Editor:
Marc F. Plattner’s review of A Time for Truth by William E. Simon [Books in Review, February] is typical of a certain approach to politics that has led America toward the loss of its distinctive and extremely valuable political character. He attributes to Simon a thesis that is quite simple—namely, that the loss of liberty must lead to a loss of wealth. But he admits that Simon really does advance “a slightly more sophisticated argument—namely, that once a nation begins heading down the road of government intervention in the economy, a political and psychological dynamic takes hold that leads to ever greater encroachments on the private sector.”
Yet the simple and the more sophisticated arguments are not very different. The “must” in Simon’s simple argument need not be interpreted as a historical or logical necessity—as with all such musts in human affairs, it means that if trends continue consistent with the practice of government intervention, then there will be a loss of wealth. Mr. Plattner’s reply is that if we refuse to be consistent with our recent past of growing government intervention, then we can avoid the results Simon says follow from such patterns. But anyone who has ever been involved in theoretical and practical discussions about what government should or should not do next knows that putting the brakes on government intervention is unjustifiable in any rational manner if one grants the soundness of the principles that guided government in the past.
Intervention has been advocated on the basis of certain modern liberal welfare-statist principles which can only be countered with alternative principles, not by an ad hoc desire to put a halt to intervention in a particular instance. Simon believes, as do many others—some of whom have argued the point in less popular books which never get reviewed because they are too sophisticated to make the bestseller list—that the modern liberal welfare-statist dogma needs to be challenged philosophically, on the basis of moral principles (which Mr. Plattner so disdainfully dismisses) that would give support to a free system. This system is not going to guarantee growth, of course, since freedom is only the necessary, not the sufficient, condition for prosperity. But from “careful and undogmatic thinking about” the past we learn that as a system—and that is what the debate is about, not about piecemeal policy—the society that adheres more and more to liberty gives rise to greater and greater prosperity.
It is very annoying to have Mr. Plattner pass himself off as an enemy of dogmatism (vs. William Simon, who, he implies, is dogmatic) when in fact he clings to the dogma—i.e., the unargued firm belief—that the pragmatic approach to politics can ever be a satisfactory solution to the wholesale malaise in which we find ourselves at the present time.
Santa Barbara, California
Marc F. Plattner writes:
If I have rightly discerned the main point of Tibor Machan’s confusing letter, he is accusing me of being a dogmatic pragmatist who is heedless of all moral principles. I find it rather presumptuous—not to say uncharitable—of Mr. Machan to conclude that I am unprincipled simply because I do not share his principles.
Mr. Machan also seems to suggest that the only “rational manner” in which one can oppose particular acts of government “intervention” is to oppose the principle of government intervention as such. If this is really what he means to say, he is talking nonsense. One can with perfect rationality acknowledge that certain government policies would be morally permissible, yet oppose them because their economic, political, or social costs would outweigh their benefits. But perhaps Mr. Machan merely means to say that opponents of further government growth would be more politically effective if they based their opposition on strict libertarian principles. This might well be true if those principles were persuasive. The American public, however, does not seem to be persuaded by them, and neither am I. That of course is the ultimate basis of my disagreement with both Mr. Machan and William Simon.