Trump and liberty

On 18 February 2017, I spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Ludwig von Mises Institute UK in London. This is the text of my speech.

When Donald Trump was mounting his presidential campaign, nothing he said struck me as more significant than his pledge that he would drain the swamp. By this phrase, President Trump has signified several things. Immediately, he has announced ethics reform for Washington lobbyists. But more generally, he has embarked on a course of action that those interested in liberty, and specifically those who believe that the modern bureaucratic state is an obstacle to liberty, should take a close interest in.

Much has been made of President Trump’s status as an outsider. No-one has exploited that status more successfully than he has himself. He is not a politician, but an anti-politician. As such, he has established himself with great vigour and courage as a crusader on behalf of the ordinary voter and as an opponent of the Washington machine. Indeed, that machine has since expanded to pit him against forces that arguably include the whole of the Federal government of the United States.

President Trump is not interested in doing things the way the political and civil service establishment are used to doing them. He has established that this is not, for him, an effective way to achieve his aims. As a businessman, he wants to run the United States of America like a business. For him, that means that he as the CEO sets out the overall principle and vision, others develop strategy based on this, and then further down the hierarchy others yet are charged with the practical enaction of that strategy.

Those of us who are interested in liberty are likely to agree that the elimination of the modern state is a development that would undoubtedly lead to greater freedom for society, for business and for individuals. It is the state that seeks to regulate activity that could and should be the subject of private contract solely so that it can extract profit from it and preserve its own favoured interests. It is the state that takes from the citizen the money that he has earned by force in the form of taxation. It is the state that represents the coalition of powerful vested interests and lobbies who with justification believe that it is they, not the ordinary voter, who own government. In electing President Trump, the people of America have served notice on the state that they will not any longer see those vested interests prosper at their expense, and that they will no longer put up with their public relations justifications for their failure and underperformance. They, like President Trump, have told those bodies “you’re fired”.

I do not suppose that President Trump is a libertarian in that he espouses any given libertarian theorist or that he is advised by particular libertarian groups, although it is heartening to see that some libertarians are certainly playing advisory roles in his administration. I certainly do not think he would have any time for the Libertarian Party as represented so abjectly by Gary Johnson. But I do see in his plans and policies a good deal that was prefigured by Dr Ron Paul in his memorable candidacy in the last Presidential election. President Trump’s political philosophy is not driven by theory but by functionality, and in that respect it is a philosophy of business. He has the capacity to envision an end result and articulate this as an accessible vision. The question of how we get to that end result is not so much inchoate as subject to as many changes of plan as are necessary in the process. One thing that liberals find so hard to grasp about President Trump is that he is not about process but about product. The state, by contrast, must take the opposite view if it is continually to perpetuate and expand itself.

When President Trump announced a hiring freeze for the federal government; when he took on the bureaucrats and their unions; when he effectively took a scalpel to the heart of the state, I was greatly heartened. Here is the first Western leader in living memory, and the first American president since Ronald Reagan, who has actively tried to shrink the state and who has dared take on those who believed the President was their man, that their roles meant that he was the leader of their club and shared their outlook and interests. President Trump has wasted no time in telling them that his and their interests no longer coincide and that their days in power are coming to an end. They call him a loose cannon; they call him unpredictable and inconsistent. They can call him what they like; if they lose their battle with him – and I believe they will – then they are finished.

For years in the United States, powerful vested interests have dominated a number of sectors of government. My own particular interest is education, and I have consulted on educational issues for law firms in the United States for the past eleven years. During that time I have seen every state in the United States pass laws restricting the provision of higher education in favour of the accreditation lobby, despite independent studies showing that the accreditation process does little or nothing to assure quality in education or do anything save promote protectionism and add to the eye-watering costs of education for the consumer. The accreditation lobby represents the state universities above all, and it represents a standardized educational product. For those of us who believe that to standardize education is to reduce it to mere training, the process by which the accreditation lobby has exerted a stranglehold upon legislators to eliminate any competition to their product is an example of precisely what President Trump has been elected to office to deal with. We need him to look at protectionist legislation like this and to put choice and responsibility back into the hands of employers and the public.

A number of President Trump’s appointments give some degree of confidence. The determination to appoint outsiders is likely to be accompanied with a mission statement that those outsiders are not going to turn native. They are there to hire, fire and bring about radical reform. If they succeed, they will transform the United States into a country that is, for its citizens, uniquely equipped to tackle globalized complex markets through business structures of unparalleled flexibility. If the United States is not yet the land of the free, it is without question that it has become, at least in part, the home of the brave.