Sacred Cows and Bruised Shins
MARCH 01, 1958 by F. A. HARPER
Dr. Harper is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Many Libertarians have scars on their shins, suffered from trying — in a certain way — to kick around some popular socialist sacred cows. Experience is one way to learn how to avoid some of the bruises, but we may also learn from the experience of others.
The libertarian is not a complacent soul, happy with things just as they are. Once he has grasped the concept of a society of free men, he sees vividly many imperfections in the contemporary scene. He sees liberty being violated on every hand, and is incensed when others bow down before idols of socialist design. The situation is urgent, it seems, and so he is likely to become a crusading idealist.
Finally, a golden opportunity arrives for the freshman libertarian. The local club invites him to be its speaker. Hurrah!
The club will first have its feast, then transact some business and indulge in some levities, and finally listen to his speech. He will be allowed fifteen minutes for his formal statement, including several minutes for the chairman’s eloquent introduction. At the end there will be five minutes for questions and answers.
His audience seems spellbound by the speech. He may mistake as admiration a reaction which is, in fact, nothing but just plain wonderment; it is as though they were watching some strange animal. Most of the audience will surely miss his point completely, never having studied seriously the underlying concepts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the works of persons such as Locke and Paine and Lord Acton. So why shouldn’t these libertarian ideas amaze them?
Then comes the five-minute question period when the speaker is to stand trial. A freshman libertarian is likely to perform in the manner of the proverbial Irishman who, with his bare hands, tangled with the bull in the pasture lot. At the funeral, a friend was heard to observe that he had exhibited more courage than judgment.
The parade of socialist sacred cows begins: "You mean you are opposed to —? Why?" One by one, these sacred cows are turned loose in the arena as though they were prima facie evidence of his guilt.
"I must defend myself as one accused," he thinks, "and answer any question thrown at me. It would be cowardly to fail to give my opinion on every issue presented in the time available."
No Time for Explanation
But there is time for him to give nothing except bare conclusions which he throws back at his questioners — conclusions shamefully unclothed in any supporting evidence and reasoning. There just isn’t time for anything more.
So the herd of sacred cows all survive the fray quite unblemished, whereas the poor speaker emerges deeply bowed and with badly bruised shins. Why?
The mistake of this courageous libertarian was to submit to trial in such a courtroom where his views on any subject could be judged in the absence of any opportunity for a complete hearing. With a jury overwhelmingly of the view that he is guilty, he has no chance of acquittal unless it is to be a hearing where there will be ample time for him to present evidence in his own defense — defense of the beliefs he holds, that is.
Judgment after the Facts
A perfectly proper and safer approach is suggested by our traditional legal processes. When a case comes up for hearing before the judiciary, it is accepted as simple justice that the accused shall be allowed a full hearing. All facts may be presented without any arbitrary time limit, as a matter of justice. Only then, after all the facts have been brought out, is a judgment presumed to be in order.
Imagine, for example, being accused of a crime while at the same time you are allowed only a specified number of minutes during which to present the case for your own defense. Imagine being subjected to a trial where your guilt or innocence will depend on how much evidence you can present in the few minutes before the judge has to leave in order to make his golf appointment at . About all you would have time to do at such a trial would be to reassert your innocence — an approach hardly convincing to anyone already presuming your guilt.
Trying to answer an involved question about some socialist panacea in one or two minutes is hopeless and unfair by the test of intellectual justice, for the same reason. Unless ample time is available and willingly offered by those who will be judging your case, it is probably better not to enter that particular courtroom at all; it would be better to refuse to accept its jurisdiction. In other words, it would be better to refrain from offering your views on all these questions at that time and place.
The wise libertarian is one who uses his time to the best advantage, who employs whatever honest strategy will best defend the concepts he holds dear. To do that is not cowardice. Why suffer bruised shins battling the keepers of the sacred cows in an arena of injustice and disadvantage while so many fertile fields for libertarian talent remain untilled?
Stand By Controls
The evidence against controls, even during emergencies, is so overwhelming—by logic, and as revealed in the historical record — that one wonders how their enactment has gained so much credence in this "land of the free."
The most kindly charge that can be made against one who favors stand-by controls for emergencies, it seems to me, is that he does not understand the workings of a free market and that he lacks confidence in the performance of free men working with private property in a voluntary exchange economy. And if that be his belief, why does he not propose government controls of everything, all the time? Why not use the "strength" of controls all the time, not just in emergencies?
To enact stand-by controls would mean putting into the law of the land a permanent endorsement of a basic tenet of socialism — the principle that control of the vital mainstreams of commerce and confiscation of the rights of private property are sound and just practices. A nation of freedom cannot enact even stand-by controls and remain basically free.
F. A. Harper, A Just Price and Emergency Price Fixing