The Essence of Freedom
[An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]
When the news of young America's novel design for living in freedom reached it, the Old World shook its head with profound skepticism. It would never work, they said. The idea was too "revolutionary," too "progressive," too "radical," and certainly too "liberal." The prevailing sentiment was that this newfangled system would promptly fall apart, that the Americans were too immature for self-government, and that political anarchy and social chaos would soon engulf them.
Yet today, though we are still youthful as a nation, we have one of the oldest continuous governments in existence. In spite of this conspicuous success it seems to have been a disappointment to some of our modern critics and skeptics. It seems to have fallen short of what they believe it should have accomplished. One of the most baffling of historical mysteries is how the reactionary of 1787 — the man who said it could not be done, the advocate of all-powerful government, the believer in absolutism — could be the "liberal" of today.
The latter-day "liberal" is actually the direct opposite of the true liberal as that term was originally understood. One of these self-styled modern liberals recently defined himself in the following language: "A liberal is one who believes in utilizing the full force of government for the advancement of social, political, and economic justice at the municipal, state, national, and international levels."
Everyone is thoroughly in favor of advancing social, political, and economic justice at all levels, just as everyone is thoroughly against sin at all levels. But the crux of the matter revolves around the ways and means by which we are to promote this admittedly most worthy end. And, according to the "liberal" approach just mentioned, the answer lies in "utilizing the full force of government" as the most appropriate means for attainment of the end. According to this view, the end justifies the means.
But mark those words — the "full force of government." What kind of government would that be? What kind of government would it lead to? "Full force" suggests a government without limitations or restraints, a government of boundless authority. What would prevent such a government from invading any and all spheres of political, economic, and social activity under the pretext of advancing justice and promoting the general welfare? What countervailing force would there be to resist its successive encroachments on our constitutional guarantees? What, in short, would prevent such a policy in the conduct of our affairs, disguised as liberalism, from ultimately emerging as undisguised totalitarianism?
The people who clamor noisily for more and more government, for government by full force and of everything, assert that those in authority would always act with prudence and restraint, curbing their own powers and preserving the basic liberties of the people. This, however, would be a practical impossibility, first, because it belies human nature and, second, because government intervention by its very nature leads inevitably to more intervention. Government financing, for example, implies government control, and government control can easily lead to government ownership.
The special pleaders for statism constantly insist that while all-powerful government might be inherently bad under a despot or dictator, it can be a perfectly wholesome thing under democratic auspices where the principle of majority rule prevails. This ignores the fact that even under self-government the people must be protected against themselves. It makes the dangerous assumption that the majority is infallible and can do no wrong. It forgets that a broad franchise and free political institutions might produce a popular tyranny with an even greater potential for evil than that of royal absolutism or aristocratic privilege. It is blind to the historical record of governments that evolved from democracies into tyrannies. If men use their liberty in such a way as to surrender it, are they thereafter any the less slaves? If we should elect a tyrant to rule over us, would we remain free because the tyranny was our own creation?
The professed liberals of today do not really march under the banners of genuine liberalism or progressivism but, on the contrary, represent the worst type of reaction. For the reactionary is the person who insists that the key to progress lies in more and more government. He is enveloped in a dusty ideology of the past, the past in which Americans lived under an all-knowing and all-powerful government and paid with blood for deliverance from it.
True, there are some reactionaries of this type whose loyalty need not be questioned, whose motives cannot be impeached — honest and sincere men, inspired with humanitarian zeal to eliminate poverty, to alleviate suffering, to create an ever more abundant life, and to secure for all a wider diffusion of the blessings of liberty. In championing benevolent government as they do I believe them to be rendering a monumental disservice to the objects of their solicitude. But we will derive no social gain by attacking their motives, by excoriating them as enemy agents and creatures of evil.
Let us simply say a prayer for them and hope that further study and reflection may bring them safely to port — to recognition of the truth that the blessings of liberty they would diffuse have been diffused in this land of ours to an unsurpassed degree, not because of government intervention but only because it was here that the torch of individual freedom was kindled and borne aloft.
[bio] See his [AuthorArchive]. Comment on the blog.
An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Floy Lilley, is available for download.
This article originally appeared as "The Essence of Freedom" in The Freeman, December 1953.
You can subscribe to future articles by [AuthorName] via this [RSSfeed].
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.