Sunday, December 25, 2005

Critics of the Halfway Free Society

Tibor R. Machan

Most of us who champion a certain political system concern ourselves mainly with showing why its full implementation would be best. Few people argue for a halfway house—socialists, libertarians, welfare statists, and so forth all tend to find their system of political economy to be sound when it is in full bloom.

Yet hardly anyone expects a full blown actualization of the theory he or she has conceived as the best. This is because we are all aware that millions of people make up a society and there is a great deal of disagreement among them as to what is the best kind of human community. Although whatever system one defends, one will make the case that it is indeed right for everyone, that will not suffice since many will no be convinced and will continue to support others.

Libertarians, too, tend to recognize that although the libertarian alternative would be the best framework for human community life, the most they can expect is something less than a fully free society. This does not deter them for aiming for it but it does moderate their expectations. So the question does arise, which of the many halfway houses gives us the best and most free society we can reasonably expect. Some people have even developed elaborate theories about the “second best” alternative.

It’s clear, I think, that the more freedom—by which I mean the more extensive respect and protection of individual rights to life, liberty, and property—exists, the better a society is for general human inhabitation. Some other system may advance some narrow objectives better—for example, one will probably find that the military virtues are better served by a Spartan society. (North Korea comes to mind in our own times.) But such societies ill serve human nature and eventually show it by the one dimensionality of human excellence evident in them.

Yet even without full freedom for all, arguably a society that has considerable free trade, significant levels of civil liberties, substantial respect for property rights, and so forth is better off, more decent and just, than one where these are seriously and widely curtailed. This, I believe, explains why over the last two hundred years, despite its many—and certain severe—shortcomings, the United States of America has been more successful as a human community than have virtually all other countries throughout the globe. Economically, artistically, scientifically, and on numerous other fronts the creativity and productivity and general satisfactoriness of the USA has be difficult to dispute, even as there are numerous shortcomings that can also be observed there. And most know this well implicitly, at least.

In consequence, also, those who champion alternatives to the substantially or fully free society have focused their criticism mostly on the USA. It is natural that they would wish to deny even the halfway success of America as a suitable human community, arguing that its values, its achievements have somehow been artificial—that the happiness that many do attain there really doesn’t amount to true happiness, that the measure of freedom the citizenry enjoy is not real freedom, that the prosperity attained is mere shallow materialism, etc.

If these points were not constantly reiterated, the idea toward which American institutions point—namely, that greater individual liberty for all would be best—might become accepted and even greater progress might be made toward what the critics find so undesirable.

This, I think, explains, in part, why there is so much and such intense anti-Americanism afoot around the world and even right here at home. The critics seem to realize that America needs to be denigrated on all fronts, in nearly every respect. Its literature, its movies, its schools, its culture, its job market—you name it, and the critics will target the place relentlessly, all the time even giving the impression that throughout the world there are innumerable better places for human beings than America. (The extreme of this is manifest by how willing the Left is to overlook some of the most blatant violations of its very own professed values—equality of the sexes, alleviation of poverty, educational opportunity, religious liberty—in places such as most of the Arab world, just so as not to give even an inch to America’s achievements.)

Some consider the ultimate motivation to be envy but I beg to differ. It is more reasonable, I think, to see the basic source of anti-Americanism—which is to say, anti-freedom for human individuals—to be misanthropy, a fundamental dislike for human beings as they actually are. It explains why Marx’s most important and influential promise to the world was the New Man and why, earlier, Plato hailed the impossible ideal of Socrates' Republic.

Perhaps understanding this will equip us better to repel the ill-founded criticism and focus more and more on improving the very institutions the critics find so repulsive, namely, institutions that extend individual liberty on all fronts.

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