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Home | Library | Words in Defense of Liberty

Words in Defense of Liberty

January 8, 2004

A thousand years ago, technology severely limited the amount of words the average literate person could read in a lifetime. Manuscripts were available only to those privileged enough to get their hands on hand-copied editions (and thank goodness for them). Then came printing. Even so, only two centuries ago, it was possible to read most everything printed in your language in a given year. Today, however, we live in the age of words: blogs, sites, papers, newsletters, and magazine galore, and more than one billion books sold to US consumers with the Library of Congress holding a collection of some 26 million books.

What possible difference can another book make? Why should anyone care about the message of one book as compared with its many millions of competitors? It comes down to this. Though there is an astounding proliferation of words in our time, there is a drastic shortage of something that is essential to the survival of civilization: defenses of liberty against its ubiquitous enemies and its main enemy, the state. Core principles contain within them the power to slice through billions of other words based on trivia and fallacy. Though we are outnumbered and outgunned on every front, we believe in the power of ideas to make a difference. This is why libertarians write.

A common response to a good article is to say to the author: you should write a book! I've heard this for years, but from what I've seen of such efforts, most articles should remain articles. Looking at the corpus of writings in the Austrian tradition, from a century ago through the latest books brought out by the Mises Institute, there are more than enough books, containing systematic expositions of theory and history, available that need to be read and studied. There is nothing I could say systematically in a book-length treatment that would add to the articles I write weekly. Articles and books constitute separate literary genres, taking a different pace and designed for different purposes.

The same is true of nonacademic public speeches. They are not designed to give a systematic exposition of ideas but rather to introduce ideas and apply them to the current moment in a way that holds people's attention. The prose takes a different form from the article or the book. It is more immediate and more rhetorical in the classical sense of that term. I had the pleasure of delivering many of these over the years, to students, supporters of the Mises Institute, financial professionals, and others. Now I've collected them, with very little change, into a single volume: Speaking of Liberty (Mises Institute, 2004).

The material collected covers the last ten years. I've made no attempt to disguise the dated material, and thus do some refer to events of the Clinton years without reference to later events. The material on the current state of the economy is subject to withering with time. Some of the material on war predates the change in public sentiment after September 11, 2001—a date which has become something of a hinge of history in American foreign policy.

But there are two senses in which the material itself will always remain relevant. First, the principles are always the same. Second, events tend to repeat themselves. For example, I recently watched a video about the Fed that the Mises Institute made in the early nineties. It described the recessionary environment of the time. Watching it again in 2003, it seemed up to the minute, and might be dated yet again in 2004. That's why it is called the business cycle.

I've organized the speeches by topic, though there is plenty of overlap between sections. Economics is tied to politics which leads to issues of war and peace, and back again. I've added neither footnotes nor bibliographies, knowing that Mises.org and Google searches can instantly yield more references for further study than I could possibly add.

Reading through all these, I find common themes: the corruptions of politics, the universality and immutability of the ideas of freedom, the centrality of sound money and free enterprise, the moral imperative of peace and trade, the importance of hope and tenacity in the struggle for liberty, and the need for everyone to join the intellectual fight. These are the themes I hoped to convey in my speeches over the years.

Reading this book is no substitute for keeping up with the news through short commentaries, and they are certainly no substitute for extensive reading in the scholarly literature. If someone asked me whether he should read this book or something by Ludwig von Mises or Murray Rothbard, I wouldn't have to consider the question long. It is always better to do deep study.

And yet, I do find value in this genre. I hope you do too. Mostly, I hope you consider supporting the ideas that led me to write them and deliver them. Also, I've included two longer interviews that are a bit more personal.

A special thank-you to all those who have listened over the years, and, in particular, to the supporters of the Mises Institute, who receive many such thanks in the pages that follow.

Our age of word proliferation has taught us all to be discriminating readers. Some words matter more than others. If we care about the well-being of our children and their children, words in defense of liberty matter the most.

Excerpts  

To the free market, we owe all material prosperity, all leisure time, our health and longevity, our huge and growing population, nearly everything we call life itself. Capitalism and capitalism alone has rescued the human race from degrading poverty, rampant sickness, and early death.

* * * * *

In the absence of the capitalist economy and all its underlying institutions, the world's population would, over time, shrink to a small fraction of its current size, with whatever was left of the human race systematically reduced to subsistence, eating only what can be hunted or gathered. The very institution that is the source of the word civilization—the city—depends on trade and commerce, and cannot exist without them.

* * * * *

All the enemies of capitalism act as if its elimination would have no ill consequences for our lives. In the classroom, on television, at the movies, we are continually presented a picture of what a perfect world of bliss we would enjoy if we could just get rid of those who make a living through owning, speculating, and amassing wealth. For hundreds of years, in fact, the intellectual classes have demanded the expropriation and even the extermination of capitalistic expropriators. Since ancient times, the merchant and his trade have been considered ignoble. In fact, their absence would reduce us to barbarism and utter poverty.

* * * * *

The free-market economy has a record like no other of offering economic advancement for everyone no matter what his station in life. However, it does not offer equality of result or even equality of opportunity. The free market offers not a classless society, but something of much greater value: liberty itself. The general lessons we can draw is that economics is really just a fancy word for the quality of our lives, and that the quality of our lives has no greater enemy than the governments that attempt to restrict economic liberty. 

* * * * *

Civil rights lawsuits are shutting down businesses daily. Many potential capitalists decide not to open businesses for fear of the government's equality police. Small companies routinely do anything within the law to avoid advertising for new positions. Why? Government at all levels now sends out testers to entrap business in the crime of hiring the most qualified person for a job. Pity the poor real estate agent and the owner of rental units, who walk the civil rights minefield everyday. If any of these people demonstrate more loyalty to the customer than to the government, they risk bringing their businesses to financial ruin.

* * * * *

May we never forget the great truth that our founding fathers worked so hard to impart: tyranny destroys, while liberty is the mother of all that is beautiful and true in our world. I make no apologies for being a champion of prosperity and its source, the free-market economy. It is what gives birth to civilization itself.  It is fashionable to reject concerns about the economy as narrow and uninteresting, a merely bourgeois interest. If this attitude comes to prevail, we have great reason to be concerned about our present age. If, on the other hand, we can educate ourselves about the workings of economic forces, and the way in which they are the foundation of freedom and peace, we will not only emerge from this recession prepared to enter onto a new growth path; we will have gone a long way to protecting ourselves from future assaults on our right to be free.

* * * * *

If private property is secure, we can count on all other aspects of society to be free and prosperous. Society cannot manage itself unless its members own and control property; or, conversely, if property is in the hands of the state, it will manage society with the catastrophic results we know so well.

* * * * *

The monetary benefits of a gold standard are clear enough, and they include life without inflation, an end to the business cycle, rational economic calculation in accounting and international trade, an encouragement to savings, and a dethroning of the government-connected financial elite.  But it is also political considerations that draw people to support the gold standard. Gold limits the power of the state and puts power back in the hands of the people.

* * * * *

So long as we live on this earth, there are certain fixed cause and effect relationships at work that cannot be repealed. Among them is that an economy pumped up by artificial credit will eventually enter recession. When it happens and what the effects will be is an open question. But that it will happen cannot be in dispute.

* * * * *

Hardly anyone wants to talk about the real deadly effect of the public schools: what they have done and continue to do the students' character. Cramming thousands of kids in a prison-like environment saps their intellectual energy and puts the strongest in charge by default, exactly as in a prison. But the encouraging sign is the growth in alternatives, whether private schools or homeschools, which are increasingly used by the smartest people. It's no wonder some members of the power elite have pushed the idea of government vouchers to hook these islands of genuine learning into the state nexus before the government loses control altogether.

* * * * *

The most absurd public opinion polls are those on taxes. Now, if there is one thing we know about taxes, it is that people do not want to pay them. If they wanted to pay them, there would be no need for taxes. People would gladly figure out how much of their money that the government deserves and send it in. And yet we routinely hear about opinion polls that reveal that the public likes the tax level as it is and might even like it higher. Next they will tell us that the public thinks the crime rate is too low, or that the American people would really like to be in more auto accidents.

* * * * *

We need to reject the principles that drive socialized medicine. These include the ideas of equality and universal service as mandated by the state, as well as the view that it is the responsibility of business and not that of the individual to pay the costs of medical care. Above all, we need to get beyond this idea that medical care is a right. It is not. It is service like any other.

* * * * *

The longtime emphasis of the old liberal tradition with regard to war is this: even the victor loses. We lose resources. We lose tax dollars. We lose trading relationships and good will around the world. Most of all, we lose freedom. And herein lies the biggest cost of war to us, for there is no way that the U.S. can maintain a free market that is the foundation of prosperity while at the same time attempting to create a global military central plan. Big government abroad is incompatible with small government at home. To the extent we cheer war, we are cheering domestic socialism and our own eventual destruction as a civilization.

* * * * *

As citizens of this country, as a part of our civic duty, if not as the sum total of our civic duty, we must do our best to denounce and restrain our own tyrants. We cannot stop bloodshed in Rwanda or ethnic conflict in Turkey, but our voices can make a difference in what our own government is allowed to get away with. When a regime that rules in our name engages in any form of mass killing, the primary question that will be asked of us is: did you speak out against it? Did you do all that you could do to stop it? Or did you remain silent?

* * * * *

Mises understood that no matter how bleak the present circumstances, the future could be very different. Even as the world collapsed around him, he believed that freedom could triumph, provided the right ideas emerged at the forefront of the intellectual battle. He was convinced that freedom did have a chance for victory, and—this is the crucial part—that he bore some measure of personal responsibility for bringing that victory about.

* * * * *

Unlike Mises, we do not face obstacles that appear hopelessly high. We owe it to his memory to throw ourselves completely into the intellectual struggle to make liberty not just a hope, but a reality in our times. As we do, let us all adopt as our motto the words Mises returned to again and again in his life. "Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it."

* * * * *

Anyone who works with or for the Mises Institute can confirm that our goal was never growth alone, never attention alone, never public relations alone, never large conferences alone. We never set out to build a great institution as an end in itself. The goal, the driving passion, of the Mises Institute has been to create the conditions for truth to be told, to make available a setting where freedom is valued and practiced. As we look to the next twenty years, thanks to the Mises Institute and those who support her, we need not despair, but rather look to a future in which liberty and learning triumph against all odds. Your faith is evidence of freedom unseen, but, God willing, our children, their children, and every generation after, will live and breathe it. May they never take it for granted.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [rockwell@mises.org] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com. This article is an adaption of the introduction to his new book.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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