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Analogies and Liberty

Mises Daily: Thursday, September 06, 2007 by

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How can one "fight" for liberty while renouncing the use of coercion against others? That problem gets more difficult when one is also unwilling to lie, since that amounts to a form of coercing others. What is left is reason, as only that can make the case for liberty. You could say that liberty has a comparative advantage in logic.

Unfortunately, that logic can struggle for acceptance in the face of a complex, interdependent world whose workings are not intuitively obvious to all, as well as systematic attempts to mislead by those who would employ coercion. When ubiquitous government intervention requires that virtually no one can take liberty to heart without giving up some power they have to benefit themselves by violating others' rights, it is difficult to get people to accept the reasoned and reasonable case for liberty in action.

However, one corollary of liberty's comparative advantage in logic is a comparative advantage in the use of analogies. Frederic Bastiat may be the most prominent example, but effective public expositors on behalf of liberty get a good deal of their power to persuade from their use of insightful analogies.

The reason appears to be that much of what we "know"—true and false — is by analogy to something else, which is why so much of what is said and written is couched in terms of analogies. But their use is dangerous, because many analogies are inherently faulty and others are misleading if pushed too far or used in the wrong context. As a result, analogies can be abused to mislead as well as inform. And abuse often predominates in public discourse, where sound bites can pass for serious thought.

In the use of analogies, however, defenders of liberty have a huge advantage. That is in part because of their experience in recognizing what Henry Hazlitt called the half-truths that always comprise the case for coercion. Recognizing them more clearly and consistently gives libertarians a leg up at debunking misleading analogies and supplementing them with the other parts of the truth via more accurate analogies. And those are often the most effective way to reach the public, without whose support liberty faces little chance of survival.

Misleading analogies abound in justifying government. For instance, there is the massively misleading paternalism analogy for government, always trotted out in favor of questionable "general welfare" expenditures, the use of war analogies every time government wants to expand its portfolio of power, the fairness arguments that omit fairness to what William Graham Sumner called the "forgotten man" who will be unfairly burdened, as well as many more.

I was struck by the impact of insightful analogies in making the compelling case for liberty come alive as I re-read F.A. Harper's Liberty: A Path for its Recovery. As he put it, liberty's comparative advantage over coercion is that "Truth has a power that is no respecter of persons, nor of the numbers of persons who may at any time be in darkness about truth. Truth has a power that cannot be touched by physical force. It is impossible to shoot a truth," (p. 127) and analogies are often the best way to convey the truth. Consider just a few of Harper's insights:

"[I]t is, in fact, a main purpose of liberty that the blind are free to follow those who can see. The danger is that in the absence of liberty the blind may become authorized to lead those who can see—by a chain around their necks!" (p. 44)

"[T]he power of government in social affairs, much like…atomic power in the physical world, still is an untamed and unharnessed force of great danger…" (p. 48)

"The only difference between the aggressive bully under anarchy and the similar acts of the dictator is its formalization into governmental authority." (p. 55)

"In speaking of liberty, what we are really concerned about is what government does—the nature of the load—rather than the style of wheels on which it rides, or some other feature in the design…" (p. 55)

"Liberty does not mean the right to do anything that is the product of a democratic form of government…It would be as logical to assert that liberty in the choice of a wife is assured to a person if he will put it to a vote of the community and accept their plurality decision, or that liberty in religion is assured if the state enforces participation in the one religion that receives the most votes in the nation." (p. 57)

"Being able to review a decision or to request its review, under the democratic design of government, does not assure that liberty will be protected. Reinstatement of lost liberty can be requested and refused time and time again, without end. A slave, similarly, might ask his master for his freedom time and again; he is not considered to be free by reason of the fact that his is allowed to ask for liberty." (p.58)

"Strange is a concept of 'liberty' which allows you to be forced to pay the costs of promoting acts of which you disapprove or ideas with which you disagree…Your 'liberty' in the process is that you enjoy the right to be forced to bow to the dictates of others, against your wisdom and conscience…" (pp. 58-59)

"Decision by the test of dominant preference is the same operating principle as…might makes right. If might makes right, one must conclude that liberty is all wrong." (p. 60)

"Variation is the seed of progress. Liberty is the soil and the climate in which the seed will sprout and grow. Human capacity for independent decisions and free choice is the husbandman who nurtures the crop during the period of its growth and harvest." (p. 69)

"Truth, when newly born, is always an ugly stranger amidst the untruth and superstition of its time; it cannot live except as it is allowed the protection of liberty, which serves to protect newly-discovered truth in the same way as a mother protects the newborn child." (p. 77)

"[F]or a government agency…[to] become an agency of progress. This would mean allowing the individual to follow his wisdom and conscience without prohibition or penalty, providing he does not trespass on the rights of others…But why would it be necessary for government to decree that a person shall do as he will? That is the precisely the thing that does not require an enactment of government. A policeman would not be very busy making people do what they want to do! For government to act in such a manner is not to govern at all." (p.80)

"[If some] acquire their status of slavery as a result of a popular vote…Would this lessen the degree of slavery…?" (p. 100)

"Suppose that the master pleads innocence of slaveholding on the ground that he is spending the slave's earnings for what he considers to be the slave's own welfare. Would that change the degree of liberty of the slave? Is liberty to defined in such a way as to allow me to take from you the product of your labor, so long as I claim that I shall use it for your welfare, or for the 'general welfare'? Should the robbing of banks be allowable under liberty, provided the bank robbers promise to put the proceeds of the robbery to some use they claim to be worthy, or even to some use that a majority of the people have judged to be worthy?" (p. 100)

"[T]he right to the product of one's own labor…To whatever extent he is deprived of these rights, he is to that extent a slave. And he is no less a slave because of the means of depriving him of the product of his labor…as though…robbery becomes a commendable act if a large enough number of people approve of it and engage in it." (pp. 100, 104)

"The mere fact of taxes having been paid is no test of basic willingness; it is no evidence that a form of slavery does not exist…The fact that a slave works in his master's field, similarly, is no evidence that slavery is not involved. The giving of one's wallet to the hold-up robber is no evidence that the robbery did not take place." (p. 104)

"In an autocracy, the power to tax is the power of the autocrat to destroy persons…In a democracy, the power to tax is becomes the power of certain persons to destroy other persons, and it becomes the right to use all forms of legalized power and influence to do so…" (p. 110)

"The lovers of liberty must remember that, in a seriously ill society as with a seriously ill person, the choice may be between some form of early medical treatment…and the services of an undertaker. If these preventative steps are not taken in time, and if the little problems of liberty are allowed to go unsolved, they accumulate into catastrophe…The great social problem of our age is that of designing the preventive medicine that will stop the eroding liberty in the body politic. Further, once the disease has advanced to the point of a most serious danger, a bitter curative medicine is required to regain already-lost liberty." (pp. 112-3)

"Our economy is not like a pack of wolves, which plunders but does not produce. Ours is a productive rather than a parasitic economy. The basis of a free society is the absence of parasitism." (p. 119)

"It is not enough to blame our congressmen and to expect them to do the job of regaining lost liberty alone. Weeds the size of sequoia trees have grown up in our vineyard of liberty, and one cannot eliminate a forest of sequoia trees by using a jack-knife at the tips of the branches." (p. 123)

"Eternal vigilance is not now enough; it is too late for that to be adequate, for the same reason that eternal vigilance of the barn door is no help after the horse has been stolen. Nor is the changing of top personnel in the government, or 'reform governments,' any answer to the basic problem…The most efficient and best possible administration of slavery will not transform it into liberty." (p. 124)

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"Is it not possible for a government…to enact all the legislation necessary to illegalize essentially all economic liberty? … All that is necessary is to frighten the subjects into submission…A horse thoroughly broken to harness seldom feels the whip." (p. 150)

F.A. Harper was a prime example of how defenders of liberty can proceed in a principled way. As he put it in Liberty Defined, "If the end is embodied in the means, no libertarian can employ other than purely voluntary means to further the cause of liberty.

This means education, persuasion, demonstration. In that way, others may be led to reform their conduct on behalf of liberty."

His powerful use of analogies was an important piece of his ability to convincingly communicate the truth about liberty. Not only do apt analogies reinforce the understanding of those who already share that vision, but they allow open-minded individuals to also discover it, in a world of influences that cloud the most essential issues.

And that is crucial because while, as Liberty: A Path for its Recovery concluded, "The lover of liberty will find ways to be free," today, most must first be brought to understand liberty far better before they can love it.


Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him mail. See his archive. Comment on the blog.