Sunday, March 29, 2009

For Liberty, 100%

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years as I have learned more and more about how vital liberty is to a good, just human community, I have encountered sizable not just opposition and skepticism but out and out ridicule for holding this position. Of course, there are those, like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who are unabashed fascists and make no pretense of any devotion to human freedom. Those like Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and North Korea's Kim Jong-il make no bones about supporting anything but a regime of individual liberty for all its citizens. But within countries like the United States of America there are few political players who do not in some measure claim to be advocates of human freedom, including economic freedom.

Many who advocate the welfare state or some other half way system, in which government has a substantial role managing, regimenting human--especially economic--affairs claim that they are concerned with individual liberty. They often assert that their system is in fact more free than what defenders of the fully, libertarian political idea promote. They will maintain, with a straight face and one must assume very sincerely, that when they promote innumerable forms of government intervention, such as vast economic regulations and wealth redistribution, sometimes even curtailment of the right to free expression such as what is normally associated with the First Amendment to the federal constitution, they are the true defenders of freedom while those advocating a full, uncompromising free society are, in fact, making human liberty vulnerable to abrogation. Thus, as an example, it is sometimes argued that regulating business isn't an intervention in human liberty but a way of support it, to defend it from, for example, big corporations. The same with taxing people's resources!

But then there are those who say without hesitation that an unbridled free system isn't really one that's best for us. They will use terms like "market fundamentalism" by which to indicate that they find the idea of a fully free market system anathema to justice, that freedom is really not right, not if it is the basic standard for justice for all. Such folks sometimes call themselves democratic liberals, or even social democrats, indicating that they have no objection to the curtailment of an individual's right to liberty if that curtailment came about democratically. Market socialists, too, will give support to some measure of freedom of enterprise but will insist that it is best not to take that too far and to promote a regime that keeps society partially socialized. Often such people reserve some area of human social life as in need of total freedom, such as art or religion, but certainly in the area of economics they are eager supporters of extensive government intrusion in people's lives. Now and then you will hear that someone claims to be a libertarian even while championing limiting individual liberty along such lines.

If one is found to be advocating a fully free system, with no compromise on the principle of individual liberty--not in economics, not in the professions, not in education, not in farming, nada--then one is deemed to be an extremist by the self-described levelheaded, moderate folks who supposedly know better than to promote anything as crazy as full freedom for citizens of a just society. No, that would be going too far. (Some even say that full freedom implies defending the right of some to provide for themselves by taking the resources of others, so they are, in fact, the true defenders of liberty.) We need, after all, some governmental interference in how people conduct themselves in their commercial or economic lives, or some other sphere where such people regard it as only civilized and proper that some people will be in charge of how others carry on in their lives. We need some government regulation, don't we? Otherwise chaos will break out, the weak will go unprotected against the powerful, etc., etc., and so forth.

Not all of this can be addressed in a brief discussion but I believe keeping a certain point in mind will at least suggest that there is a fallacy in such partial support for individual liberty, for the denial that the right to liberty requires 100 % protection, with no exceptions, not at any rate as a feature of a just legal order. (We all know that some extremely rare cases can justify limiting liberty, as when you prevent someone you are walking with from stepping into an open whole or drinking a glass of liquid that you happen to know contains poison. But as the saying goes, "hard cases make bad law," so acknowledging some exceptional cases like these does not justify including violations of human liberty on a systematic basis! That is, by the way, what the fuss about government's use of torture is all about--it must not be government's official policy.)

Now, if one were to discuss human slavery, including that which was part of the United States of America not all that long ago, it is generally appreciated that none of it is tolerable in a just legal system. All the ink that columnist Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times spills on locating even the tiniest elements of human slavery around the globe and working to abolish it are taken by most people who love justice to be fully justified. Few would dare suggest that Kristof is a freedom fundamentalist, an extremist, for insisting that no slavery at all be tolerated, anywhere, for any reason anyone might cook up. When slaves are set free, finally, the suggestion that they be kept under supervision by local authorities, that their conduct be regulated or regimented since full freedom leads to chaos--all such stuff is clearly off the table and mostly seen as morally obscene.

Well, it is exactly in that spirit that it is obscene to limit economic liberty for anyone. Human beings have a right to liberty and that includes any sphere of, for example their economic, conduct. If they haven't violated another's liberty, if they haven't been shown via due process of law to deserve to have their liberty curtailed or limited, there is no justification for it. And all those who defend the total liberation of people from government interference in their peaceful conduct can say, with no apologies at all, that yes they are free market fundamentalist. I certainly am such a one.

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