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What Caused Liberty to Triumph?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, April 06, 2010 by

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[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Timothy Ferris and Lynn Hunt: The Cause of Liberty."]

Timothy Ferris is a science writer and documentary filmmaker whose articles and essays have appeared in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Playboy, The New York Review of Books, Forbes, Smithsonian, Harper's, Time, Newsweek, Wired, Scientific American, The Nation, and The New Republic. His films have been shown in prime time on PBS. He teaches at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. He is the author of at least a dozen books, the latest of which, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, was published in early February by Harper.

What is The Science of Liberty about? Here's how Ferris dealt with that question in a presentation he made at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, in February.

My thesis is there is a symbiotic relationship between science and liberalism; let me quickly define my terms. By science I mean what sometimes is called modern science, which is to say, the entire social institution of scientific establishments that has professional scientists, university departments, laboratories, refereed journals, scientific conferences, and all the rest of it.

Ferris thinks "modern science" in this sense dates back to the beginning of the 17th century and has since developed into something truly unprecedented in human history.

There's never been in history anything like the scientific establishment we have today and it does have a method despite the efforts of hundreds of scholars to claim otherwise. And the essence of this method is a kind of feedback loop. You have an idea and instead of just testing it either by its internal logic or by testing it against other competing ideas, which Aristotle had identified as the only two ways to evaluate an idea before science, you conduct an experiment. And then based on the experiment you might affirm, revise, or deny the hypothesis. That really is how science works, as far as I can tell in 40 years of covering it, even though many people seem to think otherwise.

So much, then, for what Ferris means by "science" when he speaks of "a symbiotic relationship between science and liberalism." What does he mean by "liberalism"?

Now by liberalism, I have in mind … what some might call classical liberalism. In my opinion liberalism, like science, is not a term that benefits from modifiers. I don't think we need to talk about modern science or classical liberalism. To me, liberalism is just liberalism as enshrined in the Bill of Rights and so forth.

Ferris had been a little more exact the day before, when he explained his new book to WNYC radio interviewer Leonard Lopate.

I use liberalism in the original sense, as the original political philosophy invented primarily by John Locke, and a few others, and embodied in the American Bill of Rights, and the British Bill of Rights a century earlier. It is a philosophy that people can be trusted to be free. And it is the basis of liberal democracy. A liberal democracy is just a government in which a people can vote to do just about anything except to abridge the rights of their fellow citizens.

Ferris told his audience at the Cato Institute that modern science and classical liberalism have much in common.

Liberalism does have in common with science that, at least in terms of liberal democracy, one constructs experiments. They are inherent to the system. Every election is an experiment. Every act of legislation is an experiment.

This isn't the way we talk about it so much now, but the founders did talk in experimental terms. Jefferson's second inaugural is one of the many documents using the term "experiment" overtly to talk about American independence. And he points out that particularly with regard to freedom of speech, "Seldom has anyone been as pilloried as I have been for four years by the press, and yet not only did the administration survive, we even got re-elected." It was an experimental process.

More important, liberalism and science are operationally interdependent. For example, as Ferris told Leonard Lopate, science can thrive only in a liberal environment.

If you are going to nurture science you have got to have a free country, that's just empirically the fact, that's historically the fact. It's a fact that emerges from the historical record.

Consider the case of China, Ferris urged Lopate.

No matter how much money China spends trying to become a first-rate [scientific] power, and despite the tremendous ingenuity and education and technical facility of their people, until they have a liberal, democratic government they will not be a first-rate scientific power. Yet you can't have a government in which people are put in jail for saying stuff you don't like and expect to also have the kind of free exchange that nurtures first-rate scientific attainment.

All right, so science needs liberalism. But does liberalism need science? Ferris thinks so. Science, he writes, was "the innovative ingredient — the crystal dropped in the supersaturated liquid, suddenly solidifying it — without which the democratic revolution would not have occurred." The truth is, according to Ferris, that "the democratic revolution was sparked — caused is perhaps not too strong a word — by the scientific revolution, and … science continues to foster political freedom today." Science, Ferris writes, is "an ongoing enterprise that requires freedom of speech, travel, and association." Moreover, "scientific skepticism is corrosive to authoritarianism." Overall, "science promotes liberty and democracy."

Science, you see, "depends on unfamiliar and sometimes unpopular ideas being freely promulgated, discussed, and in some instances accepted. The fact that millions of people today are open to new ideas and skeptical about political or intellectual authority is largely due to the rise of science." The history of the last few hundred years, then, may be summed up by saying that "science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits, creating a symbiotic relationship in which the freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in return rewarded them with knowledge, wealth, and power."

Consider the record, Ferris told WNYC-FM interviewer Leonard Lopate. As he had written in chapter one of his book, "In 1900 there was not a single liberal democracy in the world (since none yet had universal suffrage); by 1950 there were twenty-two." And today?

Forty-six percent of the people in the world now live in liberal democracies. The other half want to live in liberal democracies. Everyone wants the benefits of science, and many people are prepared to accept the minor sacrifices that might go along with getting it. Others don't want to and they don't have to.

Ferris told his audience at the Cato Institute in February that it's not difficult to figure out why liberal democracy has spread so rapidly. Nor is it hard to guess why people want to live under such a system.

This combination of science and liberalism has quite a number of attainments. In the book I try to boil down some of them to what I think are fairly universal values. What can everyone agree is good for people to have? Like health, wealth, and happiness.

In terms of health, thanks to science and free enterprise and such, the average [life] expectation of a baby born in the world today is more than twice what it was in 1800. Food production is up 52% per person despite the increase in population just since 1961 (that's actually just to 2001). And the reason, of course, for that is that agriculture is much more productive.

It's not more productive because some scientific council got together and made up a set of precepts that were then carried out. It's productive because of experimentation. And that's what I tried to emphasize in The Science of Liberty. It's the important aspect of science. It's not just that it's rational — lots of things are rational. It's that science is experimental. It was agricultural experimentation that brought about these gains.

So much for health. What about wealth?

In terms of wealth, well, you know the world per capital GDP circa 1800 was about $700 a year. The growth rate was under 1%. In 2008 it was over $6000, I think it is roughly $7,000 a year, and the growth rate, not including the recent financial troubles, is around 3%. That's an amazing accomplishment, despite the considerable increase in population during that same period.

And can Ferris really prove that liberal democracy has increased human happiness?

Happiness is hard to measure. One thing I looked at is literacy, because clearly people are better off if they can read and write and feel better off and more in contact with their community. World literacy went to 63% in 1970, up 10% by 1985, and over 80% today. Now if you were sitting in a coffee house in 1700 in London, lets say on Change Alley, where a lot of the science-minded people would gather, and you were all science aficionados and you were trying to guess what the future might bring.

You know, Francis Bacon did this. This was a guy who was smart enough that a lot people think he was Shakespeare. Francis Bacon saw some of what was coming in science and tried to predict it. It is difficult to do.

It's hard to make predictions, as Niels Bohr said, especially about the future. Had you said at such an assembly, that by somewhere around 2000 or so, 80% of the entire human population would be literate, nobody would have believed that.

"Given that equality of rights had to be learned before those who learned it could be expected to lend public support to such a radical idea, where might they have learned such a thing?"

Reading through Ferris's new book — its full title, again, is The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature — I was repeatedly reminded of another book, a book I read a few years ago. This book was called Inventing Human Rights: A History. It was the work of a UCLA professor of modern European history named Lynn Hunt. And it was published in 2007 by W.W. Norton and Company.

According to Hunt, the story behind Inventing Human Rights was a fairly simple one: the longer she thought about the events of the 18th century, particularly the American and French revolutions, the more she was struck by how very quickly the fundamental revolutionary ideas gained public currency and public acceptance — and how quickly those ideas came to seem obvious, inescapable — what Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, called "self-evident."

What I was really interested in was a very simple question. But the simple questions always turn out to be difficult. Which is, what made people in the 18th century think that universal human rights were self-evident: an implication that they must always exist, when they hadn't been considered self-evident previously? So how could something become self-evident? And because it is self-evident, it is a little bit hard to get at — Jefferson's "we hold these truths to be self-evident."

When you think something is self-evident, you tend not to give long arguments for why it is so, because then it wouldn't be self-evident. So I was interested in the claim of self-evidence which I take to be a claim that is still behind human rights today.

In the same book discussion, recorded at UCLA in May 2008, Hunt also called attention to the very rapid changes in public opinion in the 18th century about torture and cruel punishment.

If new attitudes about torture and cruel punishment develop quite suddenly, why do practices that have been accepted for centuries suddenly come apart at the seams? What happened in the 1760s and 1770s? Enlightenment reformers claimed explicitly, in print, that what happened was that when you applied reason to the practices that were current at the time you understood that they were absurd and barbarous. So Enlightenment reformers basically said, once you thought about these in a rational manner you could see that torture and cruel punishment were insane practices, and had to be dropped. So that was the Enlightenment view, that they themselves as reformers had come to this realization and campaigned for the abolition of torture. And in this way humanitarianism progressed.

Hunt wasn't satisfied with that reasoning. She wanted to pose a more fundamental question: why was it that when the idea salesmen went out into the public square in the 1760s and 1770s, with their rational ideas about human rights, they suddenly found so many ready and enthusiastic buyers? As she investigated this question, she came to understand, she says, that the buyers had a kind of learning curve to deal with when they considered buying, say, the idea that everyone in a free society enjoys equal rights before the law.

Alexis de Tocqueville recounts a story by Voltaire's secretary about a woman named Madame du Chatelet, who did not hesitate to undress in front of her servants, to quote him, "not considering it a proven fact that valets were men." Before the 18th century and indeed long after the 18th century, too, hierarchy, dominance, and subordination were the natural ways of social relationships. The lesson is that equality has to be learned — that historically, dominance and subordination have been much more common and seemingly natural.

One might well retort that dominance and subordination had to be learned every bit as much as the idea of equality of rights, but we must avoid digressions — the clock is ever ticking. Given that equality of rights had to be learned before those who learned it could be expected to lend public support to such a radical idea — before they could reasonably be expected to buy it when it was offered in the marketplace of ideas — where might they have learned such a thing?

Human rights take on self-evidence from the middle of the 18th century onwards, really in the decade before 1776, thanks in part, and let me underline, in part, to the emotional effect of reading a new genre, the epistolary novel — that is, the novel based on the putative exchange of letters.

And how would an epistolary novel educate a person so that that person would be more receptive to a pitch for equal rights for everyone?

The narrative form of the epistolary novel as it develops after 1740 induces readers by its form to empathize with ordinary people unknown to them. It forces readers to see that the most ordinary people, even servants like Pamela, the heroine of Richardson's novel by that name, had inner selves just like their own. The term "rights of man," which was the French term widely adopted in the late 18th and early 19th century, including by Jefferson, at that time … the term "rights of man" emerges in the late 1760s, and I believe the ground is prepared, in part, by the epistolary novel. It is fascinating, though hardly conclusive, that the inventor of the phrase, "rights of man," in French, was also the 18th century's best selling novelist, in French, Jean-Jacques Rousseau; that one of the first to seize upon the political power of "natural rights," another common term, Diderot, also wrote a major appreciation of the novels of Richardson; and that Jefferson himself advocated the reading of his favorite novelists as a form of moral education.

So you see, then, why Hunt's book is like Ferris's book. Both authors are trying to explain what seems to them like a sudden shift in public opinion. Ferris calls that shift in public opinion "the democratic revolution." Hunt calls it "the invention of human rights." And both authors seek to explain this change by finding a single cause for it. For Ferris, science caused the democratic revolution. For Hunt, the rise of the novel and the memoir in the early years of the 18th century caused the invention of human rights.

And they're both right, of course. They're both right and they're both wrong.

What they're trying to do is like trying to explain why a new product suddenly swept through the marketplace. Why did millions of individuals in the marketplace of ideas, uncoordinated by any master plan or any manual or instruction booklet, simultaneously make the particular decisions they made?

There is never a single answer to such a question. Different people were persuaded by different things. All we can do is name some of the factors that probably influenced the thinking and decisions of some of the people involved. In the case of the democratic revolution, the invention of human rights, one of the important factors was the rise of science. Another was the rise of fiction and memoir.

Hunt, at least, knows all this. You'll note that she was careful to say that it was the reading of novels that in part accounted for the sudden growth of the idea that equal rights were "self-evident."

There are many ways to approach rights and I am not at all arguing against other approaches. One could talk about Christian origins, origins in Greek and Roman stoicism. One could talk about Catholic natural law; there are many other ways. People have talked about the resonance with the Indian, Chinese, Muslim, and Native American traditions, and I don't in any way mean to say that these don't matter or are somehow unimportant. But I really focused in for reasons of my own expertise, but also because I think there is an argument to made for the centrality of the 18th century for this notion taking what we see as the modern form of human rights.

We've all encountered the rival theories Hunt is talking about here — the thinkers like Max Weber, who believed that the rise of liberalism was caused by the Puritan work ethic, the thinkers who believe that the rise of liberalism was made inevitable by Christian ideas about the individual soul, and so forth. Take all such theories with a grain or two of salt, I implore you. When you're attempting to explain market processes, whether in the marketplace for goods and services or the marketplace of ideas, it's never that simple.