Monday, June 05, 2006

The Best Solution

Tibor R. Machan

Now and then champions of the fully free society are told they are being too simplistic for offering freedom as the best solution for all the problems that face us in the world. Of course, such champions quickly retort: But then the critics also offer just one solution for every problem, namely, government coercion. Tit for tat, I suppose.

Yet the issue is a substantive one—is freedom really, truly the best solution, or is coercion?

Most of us who comment on public affairs aren’t close enough to people’s problems to be able to tell what exactly will solve some problem, other than our own. So we are talking mostly about very general means for solving problems, never the details. And as such, the solution offered by champions of liberty would indeed have the most going for it. The reason is that it is based on the fact that human beings are, by their very nature, productive, creative, and innovative, not a species that’s guided by hard-wired instinct and drives. For us when problems need to be solved, unleashing our productive, creative, and innovative capacities is a prerequisite. If, however, we are caged up, regimented about, coerced into doing things, it is our unique human capacity that’s being thwarted. Under compulsion people simply don’t do very well.

Of course, they can come up with solutions even then. Just consider how many professions are under the gun to come up with solutions for this or that problem. Car makers come to mind immediately, given how often government regulators impose standards for how cars must be built and how readily the car makers manage to comply. Indeed, all government regulation involves coercing people to do things the way the government’s bureaucrats say they must be done. And things do get done, nonetheless. So doesn’t this prove that people can solve problems when a gun is being pointed at them?

Yes, to a limited extent this is true. Fear is a motivator. And so is the prospect of getting the bureaucrats off one’s back so one can get back to doing what one wants. This is explainable in part by what the famous Laffer curve demonstrates. Arthur Laffer showed that they have a threshold up to which they will work and even increase their efforts when they are thwarted. People will often put up with a good deal of hassle before they quit completely. And that’s because they are left with some measure of liberty to do what they want to. Even in a prison, people often will make due with the tiny measure of liberty their confinement makes possible so as to achieve some very limited personal goal.

Yet, the more liberty is curtailed, the less people engage in free thinking, in imaginative problem solving, over all. And they will focus a great deal on how to escape their rulers instead of seeking new problem solving horizons. Just consider the huge legal departments of so many enterprises, all devoted to fending off the government, to help the entrepreneurs navigate the maze of rules and regulations placed before them by governments.

So the general principle holds—most people work best when free of the intrusions of others they haven’t asked to get involved in their tasks. Both domestic and international economic development is going to flourish best when this principle is heeded. That is the very point of championing liberty everywhere—in freedom people function better than in bondage. So despite the fact that we cannot tell the details of how various problems may and will be solved, we can make the point that, first of all, they need to get free of intervention, regulation, regimentation, intrusion and other versions of coercion governments and criminals are so good at imposing on us all.

This principle isn’t ad hoc, made up out of thin air, but learned from the study all the branches of human history. The more a country upholds the right to individual liberty for all in its legal system and public policy, the more its population embarks upon the successful solution of the problems it faces. Abolishing serfdom, slavery, tyranny—and, yes, their less draconian cousins, such as government regulation and intervention—is the best road to handling the minor or major problems we face in the world. Taxing us, using extortion to separate us from our resources, and regulating us may seem to work but they are, in fact, obstacles to problem solving.

So champions of liberty should continue to get out the news, if indeed it is still news to some: freedom works best. Because it is the right and just policy to follow.

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