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Liberty and Order, Home and Abroad

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02/01/2005Robert P. Murphy

I was flipping through my preset radio channels and stopped on NPR to catch the tail end of an analysis of Bush's inaugural speech. One of the commentators (I wish I knew his name) offered a gem that went something like this:

'I wish Bush would stop playing the liberty card so much when it comes to Iraq. We've got too much liberty in Iraq; we've got chaos. What we need in Iraq is not more liberty, but order, a word that conservatives used to be comfortable with.'

This is a typical view, and is quite similar to a slick syllogism that one of my conservative college professors once employed in order to (supposedly) refute extreme libertarianism: 'People can't have absolute or total freedom, because if I'm free to kill you, then you're not free to live. Therefore we need a government to restrict some of our natural liberties in order to guarantee a certain range of freedom for everyone.'

In the present article I'd like to explore these views. In the first place, they rest on a fundamental confusion over the definitions of liberty and freedom. But more important, they completely misunderstand the basis for the "spontaneous order" that is modern civilization.

Ambiguous Definitions

Of course, one understands where such conservatives are coming from. They think that people enjoy liberty and freedom to the extent that the government allows them to do certain things without fear of punishment. Therefore, because terrorists are "allowed" to operate in Iraq, the analyst on NPR concluded that Iraqis have too much liberty, and hence the need for Bush to stop pushing liberty and instead demand order.

Yet notice that there is a subtle confusion here. The only sense in which Iraqis are "allowed" to attack US convoys and fire mortars into police stations is that they are in fact doing it—the Iraqi government, as well as the US occupation forces, certainly hold the official position that such behavior is against the law. Moreover, it's not even the case that such terrorist acts, though illegal in a de jure sense, are de factolegal; the military and police forces are certainly not winking at terrorism.

On the contrary, the US and Iraqi personnel will kill you if they catch you in the act of terrorism (and sometimes even if they don't). Thus, if our NPR analyst wants to say that Iraqis have the freedom to engage in terrorism and that the US military needs to revoke such liberties, to be consistent he would also have to say that people in the US currently are free to deal cocaine and kidnap children, and that the government might want to consider revoking such liberties.

Let's consider the argument of my college professor, which also rests on a definitional confusion.  Recall that he said the goal of absolute liberty is not only undesirable, but downright contradictory: If Jones is free to kill Smith, then Smith can't at the same time be free to live.

Now this is just silly. Suppose that two people want to join a gang, and so the leader says, "Okay, you two are going to fight and the winner gets in." The two men inquire as to the rules of engagement. The leader responds, "There are no rules; you can do whatever you want. Now fight!"

Notice that in this story, if we were to follow the example of my college professor, the gang leader would have just uttered a nonsensical statement. For clearly each person can't do "whatever you want"; if the first guy wants to knife the other guy, and the other guy doesn't want to start bleeding, then at best only one of them can enjoy the freedom ostensibly promised to them both. The resolution, of course, is that when the gang leader in our story said "you can do whatever you want," he meant that the gang would not intervene to ensure the observance of certain rules during the fight. He did not mean that each person would be able to achieve whatever outcome suited his fancy.

In a perfectly analogous fashion, the government certainly can grant "absolute freedom" to its subjects—it can cease to operate at all. This involves no logical contradiction, so long as we remember not to confuse freedom with power. (My college professor could just as easily have argued that we can't have total freedom because Smith can't have the freedom to travel to Pluto.)

In case my gang analogy isn't convincing, consider a different example: If we adopt terminology such that Smith's freedom to kill Jones impinges on Jones's freedom to live, then we would also have to conclude that US citizens currently lack the freedom to burn a particular copy of The Communist Manifesto. After all, if Smith has the freedom to burn the book in question, then Jones can't also have this freedom; once the book is burned, no one else can burn it. But is this a very useful definition of freedom?

Freedom and Property

What then is a better definition for these important terms? I submit that the only sensible route is to link freedom with a widespread respect for property rights. (Notice that this includes one's ownership of his or her body parts, and hence rules out things like murder and rape.)

This approach captures the essence of the classical liberal tradition concerning the rule of law and individualism, while avoiding some of its own ambiguities. (For example, many such scholars define liberty as not being subject to another's arbitrary will, but this definition also flounders if we take it literally.) Of course, equating freedom with respect for property rights doesn't finish the task of the political and legal theorist; we must then define the nature and content of property rights. Nonetheless, I claim that it's the first step to a proper understanding of freedom.

Freedom and Order

Finally, we can move beyond matters of definition and consider the discoveries of economists and other social scientists who have appreciated the benefits of freedom: Not only does a widespread respect for property rights appeal to one's intuitive sense of fairness, but it also is indispensable for modern society. That is, if people generally did not refrain from theft and murder, then the division of labor and hence civilization would be impossible. To the extent that a monopoly government infringes on people's property rights (for example in its claimed right to tax), then it necessarily hampers the development of the social bonds and prosperity lauded by pro-Western thinkers.

In the case of Iraq, we see that the prescription of the NPR analyst is precisely backwards: Iraq suffers not from a lack of a violent group imposing their will on a subject population, but rather Iraq suffers precisely because it was originally subject to the "law and order" vision of Saddam Hussein, and now the "law and order" goals of US politicians. Serious thinkers have known for centuries that society is a complex, spontaneous order, which cannot be centrally directed at gunpoint. How long will it take the politicians and pundits to grasp this fact?



Contact Robert P. Murphy

Robert P. Murphy is a Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute. He is the author of numerous books: Contra Krugman: Smashing the Errors of America's Most Famous Keynesian; Chaos Theory; Lessons for the Young Economist; Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action; The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism; Understanding Bitcoin (with Silas Barta), among others. He is also host of The Bob Murphy Show.

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