The century just ended, begun with such high hopes, has been the
bloodiest in human history, with untold millions killed by wars, famine
aggravated by stupid policies and the hardships and hazards of fleeing
from political turmoil. It has also seen technological developments
unimagined even by turn-of-the-century optimists who hoped science and
technology would be the key to peace and progress, impressive strides in
conquering disease and early death and unparalleled improvements in the
living standards of those who managed to avoid being slaughtered by the
minions of some dictatorship or democracy. Human beings went into space,
learned more about one another and made the world seem smaller.
Can we do better in the next century and the next millennium? We
managed to learn during this century — at least all but a few benighted
intellectuals did — that the modern totalitarian variants of
despotism known as Nazism and Communism are not healthy for human beings
and other living things. That doesn’t mean the tendency toward tyranny
will disappear — indeed a significant number of influential people
still believe totalitarianism was defeated by building huge state
apparati in the West rather than by clinging to the remnants of freedom
that permitted the private market to out-produce the bureaucratic
behemoths of socialism. But two variants of totalitarianism do seem to
be thoroughly discredited, at least by those names.
When you cast your gaze over the last millennium, you hardly descry
the steady, uninterrupted march of progress toward human liberty and
fulfillment so many Western intellectuals expected to be the pattern
during the 19th century. But it hasn’t quite been
one-step-forward-two-steps-back either. The notion of the Divine Right
of Kings has disappeared, even if we haven’t quite gotten the hang of
self-government yet. The scientific method undermined the power of
authority and the practices of the past by insisting on basing knowledge
on evidence and experiment. The Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence
and Bill of Rights symbolized genuine and beneficial changes in public
And Johann Sebastian Bach lived, worked, produced music of surpassing
beauty and virtual perfection, and after dying in obscurity had his
music rediscovered to enrich the spirits of generations yet to come.
That by itself would almost be enough to redeem any millennium. What
might happen in the next millennium to advance human liberty and
wellbeing? Aside from being confident that we haven’t reached the end of
the search for solid scientific knowledge or useful technological
advances, I won’t be so bold as to try to predict in these fields. But I
have some ideas for developments in the social and political spheres
that would be most welcome.
The first thing we ought to get governments to do is to end the war
on drugs, which has been an expensive failure that has harmed millions
of innocent people. Since we’re talking about millennial wishes, let’s
go one step further and ask that adults be treated like adults, with
full power to make their own decisions in all matters related to their
own bodies. If their decisions harm others that might be justification
for intervention, but if they harm only themselves they should be able
do it and take the full consequences themselves.
Sometime early in the next century it would be helpful to effectuate
the separation of school and state. The institution of government
schools is a relatively recent development, begun only in the 1840s in
the United States. It hasn’t been a complete failure — most students
get enough training to be reliable factory or office workers — but it
has been inordinately expensive and has come with a near-toxic dose of
indoctrination into state-worship, a religion hostile to the inquiring
spirit of genuine education.
That would be an important step in the larger goal of shrinking the
bloated and cancerous state apparatus itself. My friends Durk Pearson
and Sandy Shaw once asked Nobel economist Milton Friedman what would
happen if the federal government were shrunk to its enumerated
constitutional functions. He thought about it, then quickly calculated
that such an institution would take about 7 percent of Gross Domestic
Product, compared to the 20-plus percent it takes now (state and local
governments take about the same).
The impact of such shrinkage on economic growth, Prof. Friedman
figured, would be dramatic. It would probably be more than 10 percent a
year, without inflation. That would mean a doubling of wealth every
seven years or so. That kind of increase in available resources wouldn’t
solve all of humankind’s problems, but it would ameliorate a lot of
Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the end of the nation-state
as we know it in the next century or so. The nation-state as an
institution came into its own in the 1600s, mostly in Europe. It has
facilitated war and conquest and in some cases might have speeded up
some forms of commerce. But as would-be U.N. nation-builders in other
parts of the world are finding out, it isn’t appropriate to every human
culture. On balance it has slowed down economic and scientific
development. And it slaughtered millions in the 20th century. It will
soon be time to try something else.
I still think David Nolan is right — that there is a cycle in
American politics whereby profound changes occur every 72 years or so,
the first three being the Constitution, the Civil War and the New Deal.
If the pattern holds, another sea change is due in 2004 or so. The
character of the change might not be immediately apparent — FDR ran on
a low-tax-low-spending-cut-government-waste platform in 1932 — but it
should become more obvious by 2010 or thereabouts. I think that means
we still have time to influence it.
Although it’s a bit of a simplification, it wouldn’t be entirely
inaccurate to think of the millennium now passing (I know, it really has
another year to run) as an era of scientific advancement and
increasingly bold experiments in human liberty. It doesn’t seem entirely
implausible to me that the next millennium could be viewed in retrospect
as the Era of the Sovereign Individual.
The Internet and millions of private and informal interconnections
are making institutions of coercive authority increasingly obsolete and
irrelevant. We can coordinate our activities and seek to fulfill our
dreams much more efficiently and justly through voluntary relationships.
When will we have the intellectual vigor and confidence to cast off
institutions that hold us back as so much unnecessary baggage?