What does freedom mean? What is the purpose of government? And what should be the government’s relationship to each of us as individuals and as members of society as a whole? These issues recently came up during a dinner conversation with a new acquaintance with whom I’d not previously had such a discussion.
The views that I expressed in the calm and friendly and enjoyable exchange are those usually labeled as classical liberal or libertarian. My dinner companion reasoned from what is the “modern” liberal or “progressive” point-of-view. Like myself, he has been a professor in higher education, and he is widely read and very knowledgeable.
What became clear, both during the conversation and from reflecting on it afterwards, are some of the following conclusions.
For a classical liberal, freedom means that each individual possesses as a human being certain inviolable rights, those being rights to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property. And that human relationships should be based on voluntary consent and mutual agreement.
For my interlocutor, freedom means “empowerment” or the ability to do or achieve certain things, without which “freedom” is not complete. These include a minimum or “decent” standard of living and the ability to attain certain potentials in life, which are everyone’s “right” as a member of society.
For my fellow conversationalist, society is a shared “community” of human beings each of whom owes certain things to the others, just as the others owe certain things to us. Society might be viewed as an extended family, from this perspective, all the members of which have certain required obligations to support and give assistance to their social “relatives.”
I suggested that society is a network of human relationships formed between individuals based upon opportunities for mutual betterment, including both the economic and the cultural in the widest sense, the fundamental foundation of which derives from those essential individual rights.
The “Social Contract”: Individualist or Collectivist?
My dinner companion raised the issue of “the social contract,” to which we are all participants and benefactors, he said. He referenced the famous French eighteenth century philosopher, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who reasoned that man began as savages in the wild threatened by both beast and other men. Everyone entered into a social contract and formed society for mutual safety and betterment by giving up a portion of their complete and unrestrained “freedom” in that earlier setting of savagery for the order and security of shared community. The freedom given up is compensated by safety and the security of mutual aid, including the modern welfare state.
I suggested that if one was to refer to a “social contract” as a basis or rationale for organized society, the starting point should be the earlier British philosopher, John Locke, who argued that rights are not bestowed upon man by government or the community but belong to him by his nature as a human being. Government, in Locke’s social contract, is to provide individuals with a tool for the common defense against the violence of some of their fellow men. The role of government is the securer of liberty by protecting each individual’s rights to his life, liberty and property, and not as a guarantor of a certain standard of living or desired access to various material things.
The reason, I said, was that if the government undertook this latter responsibility of “social safety nets” and “positive” access to various other desired states of affairs, it can do so only by imposing through police power an obligation on others to provide the material means that some others are to be guaranteed. By doing so, government would be violating its original purpose for being brought into existence: the protecting of liberty (including people’s property rights to their own honestly earned income and wealth) rather than a violator that takes from some without their consent for the asserted benefits of others.
Private Benevolence or Political Paternalism
At this point my dining companion asked, did this mean that concern and support for those less well off than us was to be left to private charity and philanthropy? I answered in the affirmative; that such an approach was the only one consistent with the ethical principle of an individual having the right to live his life as he chooses for his own purposes, taking on those obligations and benevolent activities on his own or in consort with others that he considers worthy and deserving.
The response from my new acquaintance was to say that that is a primitive and simplistic approach that may have been minimally workable in an earlier age, but not in a time of such complexity as our own. “How will ‘Kenesha’ in a low income job and little educational background know how to manage a retirement account or select a healthcare insurance policy, or even afford to have them?” he asked.
I resisted mentioning what seemed to me to be an implicit “racial profiling” that a young black woman would not have the ability to manage aspects of her daily life without a governmental overseer taking her by the hand to take care of it for her.
Instead, I asked who supposedly is qualified to make these decisions for others through the government, if it is not to be the people themselves through the competitive options and information that would be offered and constantly improved upon in a truly free market?
He replied that is precisely the role and task of the qualified experts who man and manage the appropriate governmental agencies, bureau, and departments concerned with providing for the necessities and needs of the general public and especially those in the lower income brackets.
The Paternalistic Hubris of the Progressive
I pointed out the paternalistic attitude in his view of things that people are neither responsible nor informed nor interested enough in their own lives to take care of these matters. He said, “Yes, look at how many people are obese, who clearly do not know how to follow reasonable and healthy diet choices. They need to be educated and trained by qualified experts in the government to move the uninformed and irresponsible citizen in the better direction that they don’t always seem willing or able to do for themselves.”
I said that I considered such an attitude to reflect a high degree of arrogance and hubris, a view that humanity is made up of weak-minded simpletons who need guiding care-givers and wardens to watch over and confine their conduct into narrow corridors of behavior that the government officials — the “experts” – consider “good,” “right” and ‘just.”
Contempt and Disregard for the People’s Free Choices
I explained that while “progressives” often use the rhetoric of “democracy” and respect for the dignity and diversity of people, the reality is that that they wish to override the choices people make in their everyday affairs to fit the presumed “right” and “rational” and “socially conscious” courses of actions that the proponents of political paternalism are convinced are the only “enlightened” and “just” ones.
The world is to be reduced to and confined within a narrow corridor of forms of “good behavior” that people will be either penalized for violating or subsidized for doing through government regulation and spending.
I reminded my new friend of the words of the British political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who declared that until people are ready for freedom they can only hope to be ruled by a wise and benevolent dictator. But that Mill’s contemporary, the noted British historian and political writer, Thomas Macaulay, replied by saying that Mill’s suggestion reminded him of the fool in the story who said he would not go into the water until he knew how to swim. Unless freedom is exercised, individuals will never learn the lessons that may lead them to make wiser and more intelligent decisions over time. Otherwise, we run the risk of maintaining large portions of the population in a form of permanent childhood, living off and dependent upon the commanding decisions of those in political power.
The Arrogance and Abuse of Power
I also explained the argument and insight of the Austrian economist, Friedrich A. Hayek, that the more complex the society the less it is in the capacity of any one person or any group of people, no matter how well trained as “experts” in the art of political paternalism, to know enough to successfully manage and direct the affairs of the society better than leaving such matters to the individuals themselves in their own circumstances as they see and understand it best.
I pointed out to him that leaving such vital and essential matters in the hands of those in political authority and to the presumed “experts” in the government bureaus, agencies and departments ignores what we all, pragmatically, know to be true: the misuse and abuse of power and position by those in government for their own self-interested purposes and for those who assistant them in remaining in power.
The Hope And Dream for a World of Political Altruists
My interlocutor seemed unmoved by any of these counter arguments. He merely pointed to the class of especially trained “experts” who man the interventionist-welfare state in France, who seem to be not susceptible to the same corruption and abuse of power as in America. There are special French universities that have the precise purpose of educating and graduating a selfless elite who enthusiastically wish only to manage society for the good of “the people.”
I responded by pointing out that there seemed to be plenty enough scandals concerning those in political positions of power and responsibility, and corruptions involving influential special interest groups in France, as reported in the American media from time-to-time; this suggests that the French have their equal “fair share” of human beings who take advantage of their political and regulatory authority just like everywhere else.
They are not a special political class of ethical eunuchs who are altruistically living for and serving “humanity” in a manner different from the rest of mankind. This was merely another instance of the socialist fairytale that, once we go beyond the self-interest and selfishness of capitalism into the “social justice” of collectivism, human nature will be transformed into a world of pure and simple other-orientedness in which human beings only think in terms of and act for the good of some imaginary “common good” and never just for themselves.
His response was to point to all that is provided and done through government for the good of the poor and less responsible, and for economic improvements in society through government-business partnerships in the area of innovation and transformative technology.
What is Seen and What is Not Seen
I observed that after spending trillions of taxpayers’ dollars over the last half-century “the poor are still with us” in America, with millions of people still locked out of market opportunities due to the burdens of the interventionist-welfare state. And there have been enough scandals and failures in the arena of government-business “partnerships” to suggest that the rhetoric surrounding them was “smoke and mirrors” to cover what they are really about: special interest groups picking the pockets of taxpayers because they cannot successfully market technologies and products that consumers value enough to buy at prices covering costs of production.
I pointed out that there was a nineteenth century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, who once penned a great essay called, “What is Seen and What is Not Seen.” Yes, when government taxes away people’s income and wealth to subsidize a solar power company, or to repair a bridge, or cover some people’s expenses to go to college, we more directly see the results. And the proponents of such programs can proudly point to what is created or made available that might not have if not for this government largess.
But Bastiat’s point was to remind us of what is not seen. If government had not taxed away those dollars and if they had remained the pockets of those who had honestly earned them, they would have been spent on many other things that the income earners themselves considered worthwhile and valuable. Instead of a government subsidized solar company, maybe some of those untaxed dollars would have been invested in a market-based profit-oriented pharmaceutical product that would alleviate the pain and suffering associated with some deadly disease.
Instead of repairing an existing bridge, maybe some of the money would have been invested in computer and software technologies that would make telecommuting for work easier so some roads and bridges would have to be less travelled. Or instead of covering one person’s college education, some of the untaxed dollars would have been given as a charitable contribution for cancer research or to help fund a private wildlife preserve, or simply to buy new better pair of shoes for a taxpayers’ own child’s feet.
The look on my dinner companion’s face hinted that that sounded all well and good, but those were just imaginary things in my trying to make a point. Private people do private things – therefore, non-“social” things – when they spend their own money. “Socially good” things only come primarily through governmental action serving the interests of all of us together, the community to which we all belong, and for which we all have the obligation and responsibility to contribute through tax dollars.
Progressives Cling to Collectivism
Here, in my opinion, are some of the essential issues and dilemmas facing the advocate of individual liberty, free markets, and constitutionally limited government. Too many of our fellow citizens do not believe that individuals have a right to live for themselves. They truly and honestly believe that “society,” “community,” the collective, is something independent of the distinct individuals who comprise it, and for which the individual is morally, politically and legally obligated to serve and sacrifice for. Police power is a legitimate and appropriate tool of enforcing these obligations and duties, if resistance or indifference is experienced among the citizens in the undertaking of these activities.
For the “progressive,” government is “society’s” agent to undertake the tasks of “social justice” and “entitlement” that are owed to each member and to which everyone is required to provide their contribution. Police power is the means by which everyone is made to contribute their “social dues” in the form of either obedience to government regulations or payment of taxes for redistributive purposes.
Liberty and the Meaning of Society and the “Social”
For the classical liberal or libertarian, on the other hand, government is considered an agency for the protection of each individual’s rights. “Society” is comprised of the networks of relationships and associations formed by individuals and in which they interact for various fulfillments of human happiness and well-being.
These are not only the market exchange relationships of peaceful cooperation through competition and the buy and selling of goods and services. They incorporate family, friends, professional associations, intellectual organizations and hobby groups. It includes faith and religious affiliations and participation, and all networks of charity and philanthropy at local community and wider levels. These networks of human association are what are often called “civil society.”
The purpose of government in the classical liberal or libertarian perspective is to assure the security and protection from private plunder and violence that would disrupt or disturb the peaceful pursuits that individuals find it useful and enjoyable and fulfilling to follow through various and diverse associations of civil society.
Through them people express and satisfy the sundry sides of life and human existence that make the earthly sojourn meaningful and joyful, and “lived.” Any intrusion of government, the political authority with its legitimized use of force, other than in the “negative” form of rights protection, weakens, undermines, and potentially destroys a person’s liberty and therefore his ability to make his life have meaning and have happiness for himself.
Furthermore, the interventionist-welfare state undermines people’s personal and financial ability to participate in those acts and associations of benevolence towards others that they are called by their conscience to pursue in the ways they consider best and most likely of success. The redistributive state arrogantly replaces each person’s personal judgment and decision with that of the self-appointing “experts” who claim to speak and know best for society through the coercive arm of government.
Matching these ethical issues of the rights of the individual to live and act peacefully for himself as he sees best, the “progressive” often demonstrates a blinding degree of ignorance and misinformation about the workings of a competitive market economy, the nature of the profit and loss system, and the “invisible hand” of competitive cooperation through the peaceful and the voluntarist pursuit of self-interest.
He suffers from a confused, garbled, and contradictory grab bag of ideas derived from Marxism, Fabian socialism, nationalism, fascism, and, though it would be radically and vehemently denied, often-subtle forms of racism, as well.
Through all the progressive’s rhetoric about “democracy” and “equality” and “social justice” and “diversity,” theirs is a political philosophy and public policy ideology of elitism, hubris, and authoritarianism dominated by the idea and ideal of remaking human beings, human relationships and the structure and order of society into redesigned patterns and shapes that reflect their notion of how people should live, work, associate and earn a living.
That is why the modern liberal or progressive represents the face of a contemporary political, economic and cultural “soft” tyranny – compared to the brutal and murdering totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century – against which the classical liberal and libertarian must continue their centuries-long fight for human liberty.
First published at The Future of Freedom Foundation and posted here with the kind permission of the author
Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB & T Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University. Was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (FFF).