In this issue, we will consider the outstanding question from last week:
“What’s so great about Freedom anyway?”
While the purpose of this newsletter was intended to be more along the line of “what actions should Libertarians take in view of the global economic crisis” and not so much a philosophical dissertation, I thought it would not hurt to try and answer this question. Thanks to all of you who contributed answers!
We Libertarians take the answer to this question for granted. It is obvious why Freedom is so great! People who live in authoritarian countries have time and again risked their lives to escape to free countries (one only has to remember the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989).
The context of the above question, however, was not in relation to dictatorships or countries where obvious oppression takes place. In such cases, the need to “sell” Freedom is unnecessary; people who are oppressed by a cruel, arbitrary regime will choose to be free if at all possible.
What is more difficult to “sell” today, is Freedom to people who already live in so-called “free” countries, such as the USA, Canada, European Union countries, Australia, New Zealand, etc. The population in these countries enjoys a certain amount of freedom already (at least most of them think so) and to make the leap to a “free” country in the Libertarian context is not so obvious. What additional advantages could a Libertarian society offer to them?
And, more to the point, what currently perceived advantages would a Libertarian society take away from them? If there’s no taxation, how would I get my pension? Who would provide education to my children? Who would look after the roads? What about the police, defense of the country, and a whole host of other items that people take for granted that the government provides for them?
Usually, we then proceed to explain the free market alternatives to all these things and get into arguments on the details of these alternatives. In the end, there are too many assumptions, too many uncertainties, too much risk to try something that only exists theoretically, too many unanswered questions, too many variables – better to stick with the devil you know! Fear of change also works against us, especially in times of war or crisis.
People have become used to their lifestyle and used to the restrictions that government imposes on them. Most people even agree that these restrictions, including the payment of taxes, are at best good for society and at worst a necessary evil. To make the leap to a society where Freedom as we understand it rules, is too much to ask. The best reaction you can hope for is that they concede that it is an “interesting” idea but not realistic in today’s environment and probably never will be realistic. And so the conversation ends.
Where do we go from here?
We are of course not the first Libertarians to ask this question. Many ideas have been proposed and tried, we have managed to be good custodians of our philosophy in that it has not died and been forgotten, and we have even made some “converts” along the way, people who “saw the light” and caught the spirit of Freedom, kindred souls with whom we can have intellectual discussions and lament the state of affairs as it exists in the world today.
While I in no way disparage these efforts and activities (in fact I fully support them and contribute to them in my own way), we have not answered the above question about what’s so great about Freedom for people who live in democratic countries and seem to enjoy a reasonably free lifestyle. They have freedom of religion, can travel overseas, can choose their work, their place of living, and “enjoy” the protection of their government. They can even decide to join political parties and take part in the democratic process of electing their politicians and can even try to become politicians, government ministers, and perhaps head of state themselves. What do we have to offer on top of that?
This is actually quite a sobering question and also the reason why I thought it is important enough to devote this issue (and subsequent ones, if necessary) to trying to answer it.
When we defend
Looking at Freedom in a positive way, i.e. not the absence but the presence of Freedom, we can make the following arguments.
Freedom is the right to choose! Choose what I wish, what I want, what I need, the way I want to live my life, the way I define my success or happiness, with the only proviso being that I do not infringe upon the equal freedom of others. Freedom therefore enables morality because I cannot make a moral choice, good or bad, if I am not free to make it. If I am forced or coerced to make a choice, the responsibility for that choice is no longer mine but belongs to whoever made me choose this or that.
Freedom is thus essential for morality, but also for happiness, prosperity, creativity, and justice. “Free” countries create more wealth because its citizens are free to be creative and successful, are free to pursue what makes them happy, and the principles of freedom and responsibility allow for justice (what is yours and what is mine) to flourish and to be effective. The voluntary actions of free individuals have greater potential for “good” than the forced actions of conscripted individuals.
“Freedom works because men are not all-knowing”, F.A. Hayek observed. A fundamental assumption of anyone being in favor of freedom is therefore the ignorance of all of us. I cannot improve of what Hayek said, so I let him continue his argument: “… if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty … Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realizing many of our aims. It is because every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.” (F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty).
The humility that is implied in the admission of ignorance is, of course, not that popular. Governments pretend that they know pretty much everything and whatever they don’t know is not worth knowing. Any discussions on the benefits of Freedom must therefore always start with this fundamental assumption: our collective ignorance. Our collective “wisdom” or knowledge has been made possible only by giving individuals the freedom to think, act, learn, experiment, debate, explore, and discover new knowledge and share it so that we all can benefit from it.
In summary, then, Freedom is essential for morality, justice, prosperity, happiness, progress, and knowledge. That’s good enough for me! The link of Freedom to Happiness was also the theme of one of our readers, Walter Smith, who had this to say about why freedom:
“The alternative to freedom is enslavement. If one assumes the purpose of
life is one's own happiness, then one must be free to seek happiness on
one's own terms. If one is to seek one's own goals and explore anything
life has to offer, one must be free to search. If we allow Big Brother (in whatever
form it takes) to dictate our lives we can never be truly happy.
Only an individual can decide what will bring him or her happiness. If
one's happiness is left up to Big Brother, then happiness will always be
subjugated to Big Brother's quest for more power and control over
individuals and society. Innovation and true improvement of the lives of
humans will suffer.”
Are these arguments enough to convince a skeptical public? A few perhaps, but certainly not a majority. It may be easier to point out the failures of government as they try to take over every aspect of our lives.
To me, governments today are the source of arrogance, lies, theft, violence and corruption, and the priority task of Libertarians is to minimize the effects of these on our lives. One way is to use our time to make money; as I found in my travels around the world, the more money I have, the more freedom I have. It does not work everywhere but is still effective in a lot of places. However, with the action that governments around the world are taking and are planning to take in response to the economic crisis, I see even this opportunity being taken away gradually at first, but accelerating. This is why I believe it is time now for Libertarians to “collaborate” and ensure not only that the benefits of Freedom will continue for as long as possible but that we can be better prepared against the onslaught that is sure to come.
When the dangers to our Freedom become so obvious that the multitudes are noticing, it may be too late already, but in any case we need to have an alternative ready, based on our principles, that will then be accepted by a far greater number of people than we can hope for at present.