President Obama (And Others) Who Don't 'Get' Liberty Should Read This Book

By George Leeft - Forbes
Our America Initiative Advisory Council Member of Educational Choices

In early America, people spoke about liberty a great deal. Patrick Henry famously declared, “Give me liberty or give me death.” The preamble to the Constitution  speaks to the importance of securing “the blessings of liberty.”

These days, however, we hear or read the word much less often. It doesn’t seem to be in President Obama’s vocabulary at all. He has declared that inequality is the greatest problem we face, but can anyone remember his ever talking about the importance of liberty?

But while the president and all his minions toil away to subject us to an ever-increasing burden of mandates, prohibitions, and taxes, a few individuals are trying to convince people that we have already lost a great deal of liberty and should strive to get it back.

One of them is Tom Palmer of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Palmer has written and edited quite a few books, most recently Why Liberty: Your Life, Your Choices, Your Future.

It’s a short, easily read, yet intellectually powerful book that aims especially at convincing younger people that their lives will be much better in a free society and economy.

So-called “progressives” want to increase the power of government across the board. What stands in their way is the residual belief among some the populace that liberty is good and should not be sacrificed. Palmer and his writers seek to strengthen and spread that belief. They all do a superb job. (Alas, there isn’t space here to do justice to all of the contributions.)

Palmer’s lead essay, “Why be Libertarian?” explains the common ground between libertarianism and the rules most people instinctively follow in their everyday lives. Acting like a libertarian, he writes, means “You don’t hit other people when their behavior displeases you. You don’t take their stuff. You don’t lie to them or trick them….You respect other people. You respect their rights. You might sometimes feel like smacking someone in the face for saying something offensive, but your better judgment prevails and you walk away or answer words with words. You’re a civilized person.”

Libertarianism means extending those decent, non-aggressive instincts most of us follow individually to the level of government. If you should never use force or fraud, neither should those who run the government.

But isn’t government different? Haven’t people consented to government coercion because “the common good” often requires it?

That belief has been drummed into people almost everywhere. Palmer proceeds to tear it apart.

The French philosopher Rousseau is probably the best-known advocate of the rightness of government coercion. Even if few people have actually read his book The Social Contract, many have absorbed its central argument that there exists a “general will” regarding the good of society, so when government officials compel us to go along with whatever they claim to be the general will, they are just “forcing us to be free.” Palmer counters that there never has been a “general will” in any society and the claim that there is by Rousseau and philosophers since his day is nothing but a deception to enable some people to control others.

Well-known TV personality John Stossel next contributes an essay cleverly entitled “There Ought Not to be a Law.” Stossel observes that both left-wingers and right-wingers think they can improve upon society in various ways. Their ends may be laudable, but both sides err in their choice of means when they turn to government, with its tools of coercion, rather than peaceful, voluntary approaches.

If you think, e.g., that drug use is bad, don’t seek laws forbidding it, but instead use your freedom to find the best ways of persuading people that they’d be better off not using drugs. Or if you think that poor people need better medical care, don’t lobby for a law that has government take over everyone’s care, but instead use your freedom to target voluntary assistance to those who need it.

Stossel sums this up with a line all readers should easily remember: “There is nothing government can do that we cannot do better as free individuals.”

Libertarians are part of the “extreme right” in American politics – correct? No, says Clark Ruper in an essay challenging the conventional left to right spectrum. Libertarians, he argues, are radical centrists. They are radical because libertarian analysis goes to the root of issues, and centrist because, he writes “we project our ideas outward and inform political parties and ideologies across the spectrum.” How so?

Ruper observes that modern freedoms that almost everyone favors only exist due to principled opposition by libertarians — formerly known as classical liberals, or just liberals — to laws and social norms that gave the few power over the many. For example, the separation of church and state, the abolition of slavery, and legal protection for free speech – all were triumphs of libertarianism. (One more example Ruper might have included was the ending of military conscription.) Life today would be much less pleasant if it hadn’t been for those “radical centrists” in the past.

 

Palmer follows with an essay that expands on the history of libertarian thought – especially how it undermined the old medieval social forms that left the individual at the mercy of “superiors” in the nobility and clergy. He points out that during the Middle Ages, cities were the oases for people who sought liberty rather than the oppressive feudal order in the countryside. “The new cities and their civil societies were known as places of personal freedom, as expressed in the old German slogan Stadluft macht frei (city air makes one free) and peace,” Palmer writes.

Furthermore, the freedom people enjoyed in cities led to great improvements in standards of human conduct because commercial success depended on having a reputation for fair dealing. Civil norms of respect for the rights of others, honesty, and politeness also developed. The behaviors we associate today with civil society are rooted in the soil of libertarianism a thousand years ago.

Palmer proceeds to explain the modern conception of libertarianism, likening it to a tripod. One leg is individual rights – rights that do not come from government, but precede it and can even be asserted against it. Those rights set the boundaries for the actions others, including rulers, may rightfully take against you.

The second leg is spontaneous order. Libertarian thinking recognizes that order emerges in society from the voluntary associations and agreements people enter into. Thus, there is no need for government officials to impose order by force.

Finally, there is limited government. Government has a role to play in society, but that role is limited to the defense of rights. It must be tightly controlled lest the state become a tool of plunder and tyranny.

Summing up, Palmer sets forth what should be a strongly appealing vision: “Social, scientific, and artistic progress, of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect among a myriad different ways of life and culture; of industry, commerce, and technology; of eradicating poverty and pushing back the frontiers of ignorance, of free, independent, and dignified individuals secure in the enjoyment of their rights.”

James Padelioni’s essay links the spirit of libertarianism with the abolition of slavery. The greatest human rights campaign in history was fueled by the libertarian belief that violations of the right to live in freedom cannot be tolerated. The fire that burned in abolitionists was libertarian fire. Not only did it animate the campaign against slavery, but also the campaigns against laws that denied equal rights to women and to Jews.

In all of that, the great weapons against oppression were non-political and, of course, non-violent. Libertarians used economic means to battle slavery, such as consumer boycotts of slave-produced sugar and education to raise the moral vision of the mass of people so they would see the wrong in long-accepted practices of oppression.

Perhaps the essay most likely to open the eyes of younger people is Sarah Skwire’s “No Liberty, No Art: No Art, No Liberty.” In it, she draws the connection between artistic freedom (which naturally rebellious teens and young adults understand to be important) and freedom in general. Surveying history from ancient times to modern, she gives examples where rulers used their power to punish poets, artists, and musicians who dared to criticize them. Stalin and Hitler both imprisoned and killed artists who dared to speak out against their regimes. More recently, Putin’s Russian government had the punk band Pussy Riot sentenced to a penal colony for performing an anti-government song.

Art, Skwire argues, can also help to advance liberty. The Czech Republic’s “Velvet Revolution” was catalyzed by the government’s prosecution of a rock band. She quotes Czech leader Vaclav Havel, who said, “The freedom to play rock music was understood as the freedom to engage in philosophic and political reflection, the freedom to write, the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society.” Of the many reasons to fear the expansion of state power is the way it is used to attack the arts is one of the most compelling.

Aaron Ross Powell’s essay argues that libertarianism is a philosophy of humility. It is humble in admitting that all of us have limited knowledge, and humble in insisting that no one can be entrusted with the power to coerce others. Out of that humility grows respect for the dignity of each person and the willingness to allow each person to pursue his own quest in life.

But out of humility also grows, Powell writes, “a realistic view of how governments operate.” Here he introduces readers to public choice theory, which is the antidote to the fairy dust notions about government that most Americans are imbued with in school. Instead of serving “the public interest,” as children are taught, politics usually does the opposite, helping those few who are the most vocal and politically important.  Powell develops that point at length, and rightly so; the fact that government does far more to succor the well-connected than to aid the poor is the Achilles’ Heel of governmental legitimacy.

Showing that the yearning for liberty is universal, Nigerian Olumayowa Okedirans’  argues that African peoples could enjoy enormous gains in prosperity if it weren’t for the fact that most African intellectuals and rulers adhere to European socialistic thinking. Okedirans points out that Africans have long engaged in production and trade, just as Europeans and Asians do.

Okedirans is especially adamant in denouncing that the claim that socialism is the “authentic” model for African societies. It simply isn’t true, and only serves as an excuse for authoritarian and kleptocratic rulers to hold on to power. If they would stop interfering and allow their people to act freely, Africa would rapidly change from the continent we feel sorry for into a continent of rising prosperity.

Not long after the book was published, the disastrous rollout of Obamacare occurred. Advocates for that law repeatedly said that it was needed to solve the “crisis” afflicting our medical care system. In her essay “The Tangled Dynamics of State Interventionism: The Case of Health Care,” Sloane Frost dismantles the tiresome notion that the problems we have in health care and health insurance stem from free markets. She demonstrates that the troubles we face are entirely due to decades of government interference – a vast array of mandates and prohibitions and taxes and subsidies that replaced voluntary arrangements and prevented better systems from emerging.

Young Americans are both worried about health care issues and confused about the nature of the “crisis.” Sloane Frost has made it all clear: government is the problem and liberty is the solution.

 

In his concluding essay, “The Origins of the State and Government,” Palmer jousts with “progressives” who claim that government is responsible for everything good in society. Supposedly, in the absence of the state, people would live under frightful conditions of poverty and fear. But since government furnishes the framework for civilization, the wealth that people manage to accumulate actually belongs to it and hence rulers are entitled to take as much as they want in taxes.

Palmer refutes that argument. First, the state did not originate in some kind of social contract, but rather as a predatory institution. It did not make production and trade possible; instead, it fastened itself in parasitic fashion on peaceful and productive societies through conquest. Originally “roving bandits,” the state gradually transformed itself into “stationary bandits.”

Many readers will be intrigued by Palmer’s point that throughout history, there have been regions of the world where there was no government, and yet the people developed the economic, social, and legal institutions necessary for prosperous, harmonious societies. That will come as a surprise because, he writes, “State systems of social control – from military conscription to compulsory schooling – have thoroughly permeated our consciousness.”  Just so.

The great task before us – indeed the real “defining challenge of our time” contrary to Obama, is to “free our minds from dependence on the state.” Anyone who reads this book will take a big step in that direction.

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