Freedom is for Grown-Ups

…but our leaders want to keep us children. My newest Kindle read is Daniel Hannan’s Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. Hannan, a Member of the European Parliament who advocates for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, traces the development of the liberty that we take for granted from its roots in pre-Norman England through to the present-day anglosphere of the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Looking back at the foundations of the old English concept of liberty, Hannan points out one of the many differences between English common law and the top-down style of law in Europe:

“Common law is based on the notion that anything not expressly prohibited is legal. There is no need to get the permission of the authorities for a new initiative. Again, even now, we see this consequence of the different between British and Continental practice. British Euro-skepticism owes a great deal to a resentment of what is seen as unnecessary meddling, but, to the Eurocrat, “unregulated” is more or less synonymous with “illegal.” I see the difference almost every day. Why, I often find myself asking in the European Parliament, do we need a new EU directive on, let’s say, herbal medicine? Because, comes the answer, there isn’t one. In England, herbalists have been self-regulating since the reign of Henry VIII. In most of Europe, such a state of affairs could never have come about.”

This strikes at the very heart of what makes a people truly free. If you come across a meadow, with no fences or signs, are you allowed to cross it? If you want to do something against which there is no law, must you first ask permission? In grade school, children are taught to ask permission before doing anything. While this may be necessary for children who are learning the etiquette and mores of polite society, there comes a time when you no longer need ask to use the bathroom. Yet activists and political leaders always feel the temptation to treat their fellow citizens as children who require their guiding hand in order to do right.

Jonah Goldberg wrote the book on the way the modern American left is driven by a paternalistic fervor to rule over us for our own good. A leftist is one who looks around and, seeing people making poor choices, wants to free them from the consequences of their actions by taking away the ability to make poor choices in the first place. As usual, good intentions are all that matter. This wannabe dictator would balk at any comparison with such dictators as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, or Pol Pot, despite the fact that they all came to power promising the same things. Their evil actions make them evil, while my good intentions make me good, he might say. Sure, he will take away your rights and your liberty, but don’t you see that it is for your own good? Whether it is about protecting you from greedy unscrupulous corporations or keeping you safe from the consequences of your own actions, the wannabe dictator is there, freeing you from the tyranny of choice.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this strain of paternalistic totalitarianism decades ago in God in the Dock:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

In a truly free society, laws exist to protect our liberty and our property. Murder, theft, and rape are crimes, and the government will punish on behalf of the victims those who commit such crimes. Contracts are enforced, and fraud is illegal. Beyond that, however, people are free to live as they will. Free men and women can choose to pay someone to braid their hair, arrange their flowers, or decorate their house. Free men and women can sell or trade firearms or loose cigarettes as they please. Free men and women can operate bakeries with the right to refuse service when an event violates their conscience. In a free society, adults can interact freely as long as they are not harming or defrauding each other.

In a paternalistic society, on the other hand, everything that is not regulated is unlawful. In the European model that Dan Hannan describes, and in the society that the American left is constantly pushing for, every personal interaction is overseen by government agents. Permits are required for braiding hair, arranging flowers, and interior decorating. Excessive taxes must be collected on every transaction, even between individuals. Friends cannot trade firearms without involving the government in an expensive background check. Bakers are forced to provide service if their prospective client comes from a government-recognized victim group. Beyond protecting liberty and property, the government of a paternalistic society treats its citizens as subject children, who must be guided by their benevolent parents lest they make the wrong decision. (Former Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein called it “nudging”.)

Despite the fact that such a society is ostensibly built on doing what is best for everyone, it is no less dangerous than the dictatorships that plunged the world into war during the twentieth century. If you doubt that, try ignoring your taxes one year. Try to practice law without a license. Open a business without going through the proper governmental channels. First, you will get strongly-worded form letters. Then, officers of the state will show up at your door. Eventually, police will be involved. Continue resisting, and they will eventually shoot you. Our government may be nicer about the situation than Hitler’s gestapo, but the end result is the same: comply with the state or be destroyed.

We let this happen. Our forefathers fought a bloody war against their mother country because they wanted to rule themselves, rather than let a king and parliament on the other side of the world determine the course of their lives. In just over two centuries, we have surrendered that hard-won sovereignty to a president, a congress, and an innumerable army of petty bureaucrats on the other side of the continent. We did it because in some ways, it makes our lives easier. We have traded our eternal liberties for the temporal security of knowing that Big Brother is indeed watching, and has our best interests at heart. If we are to have any hope of reversing this situation, it has to start locally. Get involved in your city council and school board. If you live in rural areas, get involved in your county commission, lest the city-dwellers decide how you must live on your own land. The next time you think “there ought to be a law” remember all the thousands of little regulations that have slowly curtailed our liberty up to this point. The death of the American Dream has not been by a single strike but by a thousand tiny cuts.

But beware: Liberty comes at a cost. We will be accountable for our choices and must accept the consequences of our actions. In a truly free society, there are no government bailouts – not for the trillion-dollar corporation that mismanaged their capital into nothing; not for the broke college student who is a hundred thousand in debt with only a liberal arts degree to show for it. One of the many causes of our recent recession was the way our government took on the cost of failure in housing investments while leaving the investors to reap the rewards of success. If you know you cannot fail, you will act with much greater risk to your money and to your life. In a truly free country, men and women know that risk is real, and will act accordingly.

A Conservative Libertarian

Last year while I was on my North American adventure I had time to read quite a few books. One of these was Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. His basic premise is that the American left, which dominates most media and academia, pretends that they are not ideological but merely pragmatic. A leftist will claim that conservatives are ideologues, bound to the dogmas of backward traditions, but liberals are simply open-minded folks who go with whatever has been proven to work. Goldberg ably demonstrates why this is hogwash, so I will not rehash his arguments here. Despite the fact that some claim otherwise, the truth is that we all have ideologies, we all have systems of interpreting what is going on in the world. For many people, these systems are unconscious, instilled in them by parents, school, peers, and media to the point where they do not even realize that other people might see things differently. (Hence the common assumption on the left that if you disagree with my tax policy you must be ignorant/racist/sexist/hateful of poor people etc.)

I was raised in a conservative home, taught in the public school system, and grew up in a very liberal area of the country. Extracting a purposeful ideology out of all the unconscious assumptions that have developed has taken a long time. When I asked, I call myself a conservative libertarian (or a libertarian conservative, depending on the context). I use these terms very specifically. In the most basic sense, a conservative philosophy conserves those ideas and traditions that have given shape to our culture and society for many centuries. Conservatives hold on to ideas that have stood the test of time. A libertarian philosophy is concerned with maximizing the liberty of the individual as opposed to the rights of the collective. These two philosophies overlap in some places and contradict in others, but overall they give me a framework for deciding if I can support an idea. They force me to ask two questions about every issue: Does this make us more free? Has this worked in the past?

Let’s take Communism as an easy example. The Marxist socialists and the Leninist Communists wanted to create a society where men and women did not need to worry about poverty or hardship. They saw their philosophy as ending in an utopia of peace and brotherhood. Laudable goals, sure. But before I sign on, I have two questions. First, does it make us more free? Well, if it works (see next question) it would free us from want, like President Roosevelt wanted. But what about our freedom of agency – our freedom to choose how to live? A Communist society is by necessity totalitarian, that is, its only hope of working requires everyone to participate. If the government is decided who gets paid what, and who lives in what house, and who sells what product, then your freedom of choice is severely limited. There is no room in a Communist state for people to make their own choices. Remember that the Berlin Wall was built to keep the Communist citizens from leaving, not to keep their capitalist neighbors from entering. There is also the fact that a state that provides for every need turns a free citizen into a slave who is completely dependent upon that state. Clearly, your freedom is curtailed in a Communist government.

Question two: Has this worked in the past? The answer to this one should be obvious. Neither the Communist societies in the past such as the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact nations nor modern examples such as Cuba or Venezuela can show the innovation, freedom, or happiness of their capitalist neighbors. Korea provides a striking example. In 1953, the two Koreas were even in technology and standard of living. Today, capitalist South Korea is an economic powerhouse and its people are some of the most prosperous on earth. Meanwhile, Communist North Korea is one of the poorest places on earth. Cuba may have “free” healthcare but their standard of living is below the American concept of poverty. Venezuela recently had to post armed guards at toilet paper factories because they could not produce enough for their citizens. China only became an economic success after Deng Xiaoping modernized the country and loosened government controls. I think it is clear that Communism has failed wherever it has been tried, and I did not even mention the millions upon millions of people who were murdered or starved to death in these nations.

What about an example that satisfies one question but not the other? Taxes tend to make us less free, but we would all agree that some level of taxation is necessary to support a government that protects our life, liberty, and property. Legalizing all drugs would make us more free, but there is a point at which they would be more harmful to society than keeping them illegal. Truthfully though, most ideas will answer either yes or no to both questions. Humans have an innate desire for freedom, so what works will often satisfy our need for liberty as well. Free people are happy people, innovative people, and strong people.

The quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin about a society who gives up liberty for security and loses both is an apt one. If we give up our freedom to choose our own medical care for the security of knowing someone else will pay for it, we will find ourselves worse off than before. If we give up our freedom to defend ourselves with firearms for the security of a militarized police force and surveillance state, we will find ourselves in more danger than before. If we give up our freedom to travel as we will for the security of keeping safe from terrorists, we will become prisoners in our own lands. The point is that freedom is dangerous and scary. Children have parents who watch out for them, take care of them, tell them what to do, and keep them safe from the outside world. The government should not be our parents. A conservative philosophy of liberty is for grown-ups who understand that they will face the consequences of their actions, both positive and negative. It is not for the timid. You have the freedom to choose to support ideologies that keep you safe from want, from need, and from fear, but beware! History shows that societies that go down that road face ruination, a lower quality of life, and degradation of the human spirit, which yearns to be free.