A few years ago it was possible for those with a libertarian turn of mind to believe that, after a century of ruinous experimentation with interventionist creeds, ranging from totalitarian communism to the milder, social democratic systems of western Europe, the world was finally coming round to their point of view. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher's vigorous attack on the "nanny knows best" philosophy of government had scored some notable successes and had been an inspiration of Reaganomics in the US. In Europe, privatisation was on the lips of every economic reformer from Paris to Prague and free market ideas were in total control of the philosophical high-ground. It seemed that, everywhere, the frontiers of the state were in full retreat.
But just as the libertarians were raising their glasses to toast their victory, the deepest world recession since the 1930s intervened and turned to ashes the libertarians' promised reward of greater prosperity. As the world embarks, apprehensively, on its journey through 1993 we are, all at once, back on the cusp; still looking back, with distaste to the interventionism from which the 1980s partially delivered us, and yet looking forward, with equal foreboding, to the free market future.
Signs of free market revisionism are proliferating at an alarming rate. In Britain there are persistent calls for new public works programmes, or "infrastructure investment" as the modern parlance has it; the Government seems poised to modify its accounting rules to exclude loan guarantees for major projects, such as the Chunnel rail-link, from the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement; the coal industry is being seen as a supplier of jobs, as well as of competitively-priced products, and many captains of British industry have begun to call for a more pro-active industrial policy.
Elsewhere, there is a democrat in the White House though not, we are assured, of the old, interventionist school, and a battle royal has just been fought between two mighty institutions on opposite sides of the philosophical divide - the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) representing the libertarian cause, and Europe's interventionist agricultural subsidies system.
The trouble is that interventionism is addictive. The danger is that once politicians believe there are votes to be bought with it, interventionism will grow like Topsy, and before we know it we will be back to the bad old days when it was lovely weather for no one but lame ducks and subsidy farmers.
The problem for the libertarians is that in a recession, the benefits of liberal policies are obscured. When times are hard people look to the state for assistance and they forget the price that will have to be paid for it later. When other countries adopt beggar-my-neighbour policies it becomes even harder to resist the siren calls of the interventionists. It seems sheer folly to cling to the free market idea, when all about you are looking after their own.
But to respond to the interventionism of others by becoming interventionist ourselves would be to surrender to an old enemy whose weaknesses have been exposed. European governments must be persuaded that the right policy is to take up arms against interventionism and steadfastly to reject demands for retaliatory tariffs or subsidies.
For those business people who believe that although the market is a very bad way of allocating resources, it is much better than anything else that has been tried so far, the time has come to stand up and be counted.