Mises Wire

Defining and Defending Freedom

The Mises Institute has worked for more than four decades to advance one purpose: the cause of economic freedom in academia and public life. The two comments on our work that I hear most often are: (1) you guys are doing a great job, and (2) it is not working.

On the first point, I can only thank our generous supporters and faculty who make it all happen. They have enabled us to create an intellectual infrastructure that combines the ideals of the sanctuary and the tactics of intellectual guerilla warfare, at once reflective and separate as well as passionate and expansionist. For those who are not yet members, join us please with a $60 contribution.

On the second point, that our work has not yet yielded a free society, it is not difficult to observe that the government is growing and liberty is shrinking in many areas. But rather than fall into despair, consider that liberty is neither easy to achieve nor sustain absent a deep cultural commitment.

Mises taught that all societies in all times, and their governing structures, are the result of the ideas prevalent in the culture. He took it for granted that no government is liberal by nature. They all want maximum power and money for themselves, and can only obtain it at the expense of the people, since government itself produces nothing.

Consider the mentality of most presidents, justices, and Senators, and the incentives they face. Expanding the reach of government power is just considered integral to the job description. They may choose to expand in one area as versus another based on the quid pro quos they owe for the past election and the next one, but the idea of diminishing overall government makes no sense to them—any more than it makes sense for a cook to encourage dieting, or a housing contractor to encourage cave-dwelling. Once a politician or bureaucrat tastes power, he or she becomes a member of the governing caste, which means advancing the public sector first.

Totalitarianism, in this view, is not an aberration in history but the expected result of any state that is not restrained by the ideological convictions of the public. The state can use any ideological excuse—the need for community as in communism, the desire for national greatness as with fascism, the call for central economic planning as in the New Deal, or the urge to wage war for security—but the result is always the same.

It is the public belief in liberty—originating with the intellectual class—that ultimately restrains the state. If the population is passive and uninformed by any contrary voices, the state can succeed in its evil aims. Where cultural convictions are intense and intolerant of power, as well as embrace the inviolable right to person and property, liberty prevails. The government is either afraid to act in a way contrary to popular sentiment or it is already so powerless that it is denied any ability to act despotically even if it wanted to.

What this suggests is that the most important work to do for liberty is intellectual work. An ideological force of resistance must thrive and have a voice. Intellectuals committed to liberty need support for their work. They need the freedom to write and speak and research. There must be a means to disseminate their ideas and attract young thinkers. There must be a means in place to propagate these ideas in forms that reach the largest number of social and business leaders, as well as professionals of all sorts. These ideas must further have a component that attracts the broadest possible support from the public.

The Mises Institute has worked to put all this in place, and in this way the efforts are succeeding most remarkably. Before forty years ago, the Austrian School’s prospects were sinking, libertarian theory had been marginalized in cultural affairs, there were very few consistent advocates of liberty speaking to public affairs (neither welfare nor warfare), and the number of sympathetic professors teaching were small and under fire.

Every one of these indicators has dramatically changed. This is progress. Incredible progress. No, the regime has not fallen but it has been restrained. After 9-11, when the regime saw its main chances to enact an all-powerful state that curbed liberties in every direction, the Mises Institute stood largely alone in saying no. I can tell you that we paid a high price. Those are frightening times to be a libertarian, times when the head of the world empire declares that you are either for his policies or for the terrorists. This sends chills down the spine of every dissident.

And yet we look around today and we see two main trends. First, the state is advancing far less than it might have hoped three years ago. It faces opposition at every turn, and skepticism about its every action. We owe this to a level of public resistance. Every dissident voice assists in this regard. Second, we see private enterprise on the march as never before, transforming our lives, melting borders to capital, and gaining ever more opportunities for fighting against tyranny and advancing liberty.

No, our job is far from over. Indeed, it begins anew every day. But we only need to imagine a world in which there are no advocates of liberty, no support structures for dissident intellectuals, no conferences for students to learn an alternative, and no sanctuaries that keep the flame alive in dark times. Would we be better off? Far from it. The presence of the Mises Institute and its activities work to provide a brake on power and a guide for the future.

If you ever feel pessimistic about the prospects for freedom, I invite you to visit our offices. We have the archives and papers of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, among other great champions of freedom. At a time when major libraries are throwing out books, we are accumulating the world’s greatest library on liberty. We have about 30,000 volumes now.

All summer our offices were full of some of the smartest, most dedicated, most promising students I’d ever been around. They are as hard working as they are idealistic, and they come to us to read and study the forbidden books of our time, those works by Mises, Rothbard, Hayek and others who are champions of freedom.

These students know that freedom is not popular among the intelligentsia. They experience it every day in class, where they face professors who disparage capitalism and offer a thousand plans for reconstructing the world in cockamamie ways.

The truth is that freedom hasn’t been treated favorably in academia for the better part of a century. In the 1930s, for example, we were told that freedom was not an option. We could be fascists or communists or perhaps democratic socialists, but freedom was outmoded and silly and unworkable.

But great minds like Mises could not be intimidated. They continued to speak. They paid a price, but they kept the philosophical flame burning. They were told that their ideas were outmoded and ineffective but they were not deterred.

Nor must we permit ourselves to be intimidated or deterred today. By publishing books and journals and offering materials that make the case for freedom, we are fighting the battle of ideas—and ideals, Mises tells us, are more powerful than armies.

Our ideal is freedom. Now, the word freedom is bandied about a lot these days, so let me be clear that I don’t mean freedom the way the proposed Iraqi Constitution means it. Here we have a document where every invocation of rights and liberties is qualified with the deadly phrase: except by law.

Now, most Americans who know about what real freedom means can only scoff at such nonsense. We know that if we put government in charge of regulating our freedoms, it is only a matter of time before we have no freedom left. Government wants us to do what it wants us to do, not what we want to do.

If there are no limits placed on government, if our freedom under law is not guaranteed as an absolute principle, the final result is that government will have all power and all property, and we will have none. That is the way the world works, from the ancient times until the end of time.

In all of human history, we can count the number of principled statesmen like Ron Paul on two hands. George Washington said that if men were angels we wouldn’t need government. We might clarify that if all statesmen were like Ron Paul, we wouldn’t need restraints on government. But we know that is not the case.

The definition of freedom is not complicated. Freedom means that which the government does not control. You are free when the government cannot steal your income, when it cannot tell you what to say or with whom you may or may not associate. You are free when the government cannot take your kids and send them to far-flung wars to kill and be killed. You are free when you control your life, your property, your church, your business, and your future. You are free when the government cannot inflate away your savings, tax away your profits, lay waste to your dividends by regimenting corporate life, or control how much of what you buy and sell and from where.

The Mises Institute has made a new backpack for students, and it sports the following quotation from Mises: “Government is the negation of liberty.” I’m pleased to report that these are very popular on campus right now. They also explain where other students can go to find information.

The Mises Institute may not be able to persuade the faculty to read a big treatise on economics and society, or attend one of our conferences. We may never convert the literature and sociology departments in the Ivy League to the cause of the free market.

But still, it gives some satisfaction to know that we can drive them crazy by encouraging their students to declare where they stand. Until true freedom arrives—and someday it will—we must be pleased with all such seemingly small victories. Together with serious intellectual work, dedicated teaching efforts, the publishing of journals and books, and employing every effort to reach the broadest possible audience, we all do our part to prepare the way for a peaceful and prosperous world.

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Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

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