Mises Wire

Is the Cause of Freedom Still Making Progress?

[Freedom’s Progress?: A History of Political Thought. By Gerard Casey. Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2017. x+964pp.]

At a time when Western societies seem to sadly be returning to tribalism, Professor Gerard Casey’s masterful work Freedom’s Progress? is a prescient analysis of where we came from and where we might be going. Libertarians often get a bad wrap as doomsayers and naysayers but Casey paints a different picture, that of the welcome advance of liberty. But why the question mark? For Casey, progress, defined as the social and political shift from the collective to the individual, was never a guarantee. Although we may rightly see the last twenty-five hundred years as a narrative of the individual’s struggle for autonomy, this destination was never to be presumed on the road to liberty. “[T]he progress of liberty,” Casey remarks, “has largely consisted in a slow and imperfect transition from collectivism to individualism, from the primacy of the tribe or the group or the collective to the primacy of the individual person.” And thus he sets out to connect the storied, arduous, but necessary journey toward individualism, allowing readers to determine for themselves whether the narrative taken as a whole may be properly defined as progress.

At nearly a thousand pages Freedom’s Progress? isn’t for the faint of heart. This reviewer likens it to Atlas Shrugged in terms of the sheer length and also the importance of its content. Professor Casey, author of Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State (2012) and an associated scholar of the austro-libertarian Mises Institute, admits full-well his bent toward Rothbardian anarchy. As is usually the case, critics might wonder why a self-professed anarchist would endeavor to write something as large and inclusive as a history of political thought. Why would someone who repudiates the very legitimacy of the State exert effort analyzing the major thinkers who have influenced State behavior throughout history? Casey notes, “In political philosophy, the question is nearly always, what is the best kind of state? — rarely the more basic question, is the state either necessary or desirable?” We find then that Casey is continuing the Rothbardian tradition of reframing the issue of the State. Readers will find in conclusion that an informed history of political thought leads to the realization that man is significant as an individual, not as a minute cog in the State machine.

Whereas students of political philosophy might expect Casey to begin with the Greek city-states, the author begins even further back, at “The Dawn of History” (the title of chapter one). The first few of Casey’s thirty-four chapters are devoted to a discussion of man’s evolution, specifically his progression from nomad to agriculturalist and his formation of language along the way. He offers insightful commentary on man’s biological progression, noting that despite man’s general ill-suitedness for survival as compared with other species, he is endowed with the ability to think and speak, thus making him unique. The very formation and use of language is in itself an essentially anarchic act in the sense that neither government nor some other authority was required for its facilitation. Because man can speak he is able to engage in society and in social behavior. “Human language,” Casey informs his readers, “is essentially social both in origin and in its function.” Therefore we find from the very beginning of man’s history that he is able to coordinate behavior among his fellow men to achieve either personal or communal goals. Such a possibility, as Casey reminds us, should speak volumes about the general inclination of man toward peaceful activity and sociableness. Of interest to readers in the first few chapters will be Casey’s bibliographic credentials, weaving an anthropological account together using relatively unconventional sources for such a purpose, such as the economists Ludwig von Mises and Thomas Sowell. Casey’s encyclopedic knowledge will become evident to readers throughout Freedom’s Progress? as he casually and fluidly switches between references as diverse as The Big Bang Theory, Shakespeare, and Hegel. While readers may take issue with Casey’s perspective on a particular philosopher, few can doubt his thorough familiarity with his content.

Professor Casey does introduce the Greeks in chapter two, including an extensive look at the concept of the poleis, and progressing through the Sophists, Plato, and Aristotle. Regarding Plato the author notes that Plato’s general attitude toward the polis is that “the mass of people do not know what is good for them, therefore, it is only right and proper that their lives be directed by those who do know what is in fact good for them.” This negative disposition toward the masses will be mirrored by the majority of subsequent political philosophers, culminating most viciously in the collectivist regimes of the twentieth century.

At a time when academics and students alike are apt to wax poetic about all things philosophical, it is refreshing to encounter analysis from someone who has actually read the pieces in question! Casey not only has a thorough knowledge of the subjects he deals with, but displays familiarity with tangential works which offers readers both a more precise context and anecdotal supplementation. While his account includes the usual suspects such as Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Marx, Casey sheds light on lesser known but equally significant figures such as Johannes Althusius, Max Stirner, and the American anarchist Benjamin Tucker.

Of note are Casey’s chapters devoted not to a philosopher in particular but to an historical concept. We find sections on slavery, Christianity, anarchism, modern tribalism, and war. In this reviewer’s opinion, while the entire book is engaging, the chapters on tribalism and war (chapters thirty-one and thirty-two, respectively) are exceptionally prescient in their psychological and historical analysis. After spending the majority of Freedom’s Progress? describing the individual’s slow but promising trajectory toward liberty, readers may be startled to read Casey’s analysis of our fairly recent social and political regression at the hands of the State and advocates of central planning. The World Wars and the subsequent experiments with communism/socialism/collectivism do not bode well for lovers of liberty. At the end, Casey paints a promising but realistic picture of what individualists of all stripes are up against.

Speaking to the positive developments of political thought the author concludes with a discussion of modern philosophers and (some of) their advancements for the cause of liberty. Among these are Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard. While literature and space for political or educational activity today abound, this should not be taken to imply the inevitability of the advancement of personal freedom. As John Boyd Orr quipped, “If people have to choose between freedom and sandwiches, they will take the sandwiches.”

Essentially, opponents of the State must remain vigilant in their defense of individual liberty. We all must work out in our own way what the long-term implications of a century of violence and statism will be. “Human freedom,” Casey writes in a fashion not unlike Mises, “can be used for all sorts of actions directed to all sorts of purposes which are then susceptible to moral evaluation but, unless human action is free from coercion, moral evaluation is intrinsically impossible.”

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