Friday, September 11, 2009

On Respecting the Presidency

Tibor R. Machan

After one senator shouted out "liar" during President Obama's speech to Congress the other evening, one of Mr. Obama's cheerleaders at The New York Times intoned gravely that even if one disapproves of a given office holder, one ought to show respect for the office. Well, not really, not any more.

Suppose as a fan of the sport of baseball you have discovered that umpires across the country have become corrupt. They take payoffs, get sloppy with their calls, favor some players or teams based on personal prejudices and biases, etc. It is all over the place, you notice. Your child, however, is in Little League and the coach has invited a prominent umpire to give a talk at some celebration. Given the widespread corruption among umpires, you protest the invitation and when this is ignored by the powers that be, you go to the event and shout out or carry some kind of sign of protest. Those around you express dismay saying, well, yes, many, many umpires are admittedly corrupt, but the office of baseball umpire should still receive respect.

You then consider this and reply, well, the office may well be a good idea but when it is filled with crooks, respecting it is no longer possible or desirable. This reply holds in the case of politics, too.

In most countries it is pretty much a given that politicians are and have for centuries been corrupt. This is true even in so called civilized societies since politicians take bribes, payoffs, and favor special groups of citizens rather than the citizenry as a whole. Here and there one may find some poor, lone member of parliament who is doing his or her best to keep to the straight and narrow but then he or she is promptly defeated since what the public seems to want is not sticking up for principles but bringing home the bacon.

There used to be some hope for America's politicians, albeit minimal, because they were working in a system the basic principles of which aimed at keeping power out of their hands, certainly the arbitrary type that guarantees corruption among them all. The U. S. Constitution, with its Bill of Rights and separation of branches, was intended to keep politicians and their power in check. Alas, this intention has been thoroughly subverted over time, if it ever had a chance in the first place. Even in the time of Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln and other luminaries, corruption was rampant, if only the kind that amounted to overstepping the authority of the office these individuals were holding.

Today the entire field of politics, no matter which party is running the show, amounts to nothing much better than an extortion racket. You vote for me and I will let you have some money, favors, whatever; if you don't vote for me, don't support my candidacy, I'll show you who is boss. Wealth redistribution, the major task of national or local politicians--with armies of bureaucrats ready to do the detailed work--simply has no way of being done honorably. It is like asking bank robbers to be decent as they divvy up their loot; it cannot be done--that "honor among thieves" bit is an oxymoron from the get-go.

So don't preach about respecting the presidency when the presidency has been in the hands of people who have used it mostly for larceny or worse. That presidency has long lost its claim on anyone's respect. This is no less so than it would be with being a baseball umpire or football referee or judge at the Olympics if all those holding such offices caved in to the temptation to violate the principles of their office. That is exactly what the bulk of politicians across the country over the last several decades have done, yielded to the temptation to subvert their office in the name of various phony agendas, all of which mascaraed as working for the public interest. If you buy that one, I have a bridge for sale for you at an excellent price!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chinese Fight for Genuine Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last four centuries the idea of basic natural individual (human) rights has had a rough career. After surfacing in history as far back as ancient Greece, then coming to nearly full fruition at the hands of the English philosopher John Locke--who had a major influence on the American Founders--several prominent political thinkers gave it a thumbs down. The English jurist Jeremy Bentham ridiculed such rights, calling them all "nonsense upon stilts." Although the idea had been adopted to serve the thinking of some major legal theorists, philosophers were skeptical. This is because philosophers began to move in the direction of the belief that only what could be observed could be known to be true and moral or political ideas could not pass this test, one that the sciences employed and benefited from.

Indeed, until the mid-20th century, ethics, morality, politics and aesthetics--all areas where one is concerned with norms, with how we ought to or ought not to think and act (where right versus wrong is most significant)--had been dismissed as literally meaningless. Yes, what to ordinary people is the most important area of human life, namely the issue of what standards ought to guide our conduct, to the major academic philosophers had no foundation at all. This is because of the widespread philosophical belief that only what is perceivable can be meaningful--"I am from Missouri, show me!".

This outlook lasted a long time, at least until it was realized, finally, that if it were true, then the rejection of these ideas would also lack any foundation. After all, the skeptic is saying, "You ought not to use ethical, political or aesthetic notions," and that, of course, amounts to the ethical notion that it is wrong to think in terms of what we ought to do or ought not to do.

But many people in the academic philosophical world, including some very prominent legal philosophers, hung on to the skeptical position so that even in our day some of the most influential ones reject the idea that politics could be based on principles of right versus wrong. Public opinion, majority rule, governmental edicts are all that can be invoked, meaning, of course, that in the end all we have is power underlying our morality and laws.

This is one reason that the idea of rights is no longer based on human nature but on governmental power. Several prominent legal theorists, some working in the new administration of Barack Obama, think that no one has any rights without government first giving it to them. Contrary to the American Founders, who stated clearly in the Declaration of Independence that government has as its job the protection of our bone fide rights--rights which exists without any government, rights based on human nature--these modern thinkers are taking us all back to the earlier era when rights were thought to be grants of the monarch, the king, Caesar or the voting majority. This, of course, goes against the belief of the Founders that even the democratic majority is constrained by the rights of the people and just like the lynch mob, may not violate those rights.

This is one reason that in our day governments--politicians, courts, bureaucrats and the lot--take themselves to be the granters instead of discoverers of rights. And ironically, it is now in countries across the globe that have had and still have governments that violate rights all over the place that the American Founders' and John Locke's views are dominant. For example, the Chinese Charter 08 group, under the leadership of Liu Xiaoba and 302 dissidents, has written as follows:

"Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights."

It is truly amazing that today it is people who have lived under tyranny instead of in relative freedom who make such a declaration.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Stealing a Penny

Tibor R. Machan

Over the centuries it had been pretty much routine for some (powerful) folks to raid the wealth of those not fit or well armed enough to resist this. Widespread trade entered the picture late in the game, as did generosity, charity, and other voluntary transfers of resources useful to people. In time, however, it dawned on most people that involuntary transfers are wrong and even to be prohibited. Yet this development has not always been fully embraced, not, especially, by certain formidable advocates of political economic systems that rest on wealth redistribution.

In a recent book highly critical of the free society as understood by libertarians, The Libertarian Illusion (CQ Press, 2008), the author, William Hudson, makes a snide comment by which I can only imagine he means to indicate how ridiculous the right to private property really is. He says, and I am paraphrasing, that taking even a penny from a millionaire is regarded by libertarians as theft. Now how silly can they be!?

Well, I am not willing to accept this "reductio ad absurdum" argument. Consider another area libertarians consider important, namely, personal liberty such that, say, rape or assault is regarded by them to be impermissible and should be illegal. Of course, there are relatively minor instance of date rape or quasi-sexual engagements with minors, as well as cases of minimal assault, such as bumping someone while walking past him or stepping on someone's toes and libertarians would not give these a pass either. Even some really minor sexual intrusiveness, such as ogling some very young person, may qualify for moral and even legal rebuke. Few may have suffered major injuries from such conduct, perpetrated by others against them, although some kind of untowardness could well have come from them, such as causing fright or anxiety. But it is clear that these would be minor, compared to out and out rape or mugging.

Well, we are in a similar situation with stealing even a penny from someone who is very rich and might not notice it. But stealing isn't merely removing something from another. It is a kind of invasion. Even the removal of a penny could be seen as such because for some folks it could be very important to hang on to whatever belongs to them and anyone who breaches this could produce serious malaise for them.

But even aside from any specific harm that could well come from stealing even a penny from a rich person--or just well to do one--what about the slippery slope effect? It is like telling white lies which in an of themselves could receive a pass but in forming someone's character is likely to lead to serious damage. If stealing of even little things is going to be approved of, especially by moralists, ethics teachers, and so on, at what point will a theft reach a level that may be condemned as morally wrong?

It is one thing to overlook, forgive, various minor moral transgressions, another entirely to approve of them, including as public policies. When governments perpetrate the transfer or redistribution of wealth from completely innocent citizens to others, they are not only injuring the former but establishing a precedent. So now it is fine to do a bit--or maybe even a good bit--of stealing because, well, Barack Obama made it clear that he approves of it (in his chat with Joe the Plumber during the election campaign). Indeed, reportedly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told several wealthy people in a talk she gave in San Francisco that "You have money and we are going to take it from you."

Ethical transgressions, even legal ones, are not like violations of the principles of Euclidean geometry of formal logic but neither are they inconsequential matters to indulge in, not among civilized people at least. The entire point of being civilized, of being civil, is to deal with one's fellow human beings peacefully, respectful of their rights, even in small matters. And while small transgressions can be forgiven, they should never be praised.

Instead, though, in our current public policy climate we have out and out official flaunting of the fine points of human morality, especially those pertaining to respecting other people's property rights. From the U. S. Supreme Court to the Congress and the President, officials are practically proud of not caring about adhering to such principles of right conduct. The president of the United States of America and many of his supporters in the academy proclaim themselves to be pragmatists, which is to say indifferent to principled conduct and willing to bend ethics and principles of social life whenever these stand in the way of their grand plans.

But this is the way to building a corrupt society, not just an impoverished one.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Contra Krugman Again

Tibor R. Machan

A repeated theme of Paul Krugman of The New York Times and Princeton University is that Ronald Reagan was a "market fundamentalist" and too many of the critics of President Obama's economic policies are blinded by this ideology, so much so that they are retarding the great leap of progressivism that would come our way from the President and his team of experts. if only these critics got out of the way! Column after column Krugman criticizes Reaganomics. So let's take a look at this for a moment.

It turns out that Ronald Reagan didn't introduce anything radical or even very different from his predecessors (such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon) that can justly be called market fundamentalism. Nixon had declared that "We are all Keynesians now" and even went so far as to impose wage and price controls, just what an interventionist like Paul Krugman would welcome under certain circumstances and totally anathema to free market economic philosophy. And while Reagan didn't do that, he didn't deregulate much either as it is often contended by his detractors.

In a review of The Age of Reagan, The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989, by Stephan F. Hayward, the reviewer, Ross Douthat, quotes Hayward thus: "Reagan successfully curbed the excesses of liberalism [but] he did not curb liberalism itself." Douthat himself adds, "The angst of his opponents notwithstanding, Reagan's budgets hardly touched the Great Society, let alone the New Deal. The conservative era he ushered in was, in fact, conservative: It halted liberals in their tracks, without significantly rolling back the state that Roosevelt and Johnson had built" (The NY Times Book Review, 9/06/09, p. 9). So all the angst Krugman has been voicing about Obama's critics and their Reagenomics seems to be unwarranted since, well, Reagan was actually quite in line with the policies spawned by Keynes (via Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon).

What this shows is once again that instead of arguing policy, numbers, history, and such, Krugman prefers to engage in name-calling, in labeling and besmirching. As if he didn't trust his readers to be able to follow arguments, as if economics for him were some kind of mysterious science only the in-crowd can grasp. For the rest, what is best is to assault the character of those who disagree with the Professor.

When it comes to facts and figures, however, Krugman is no better. As economist Donald J. Boudreaux of George Mason University writes, "Noting that 'it's important to have some perspective,' Paul Krugman argues that while Uncle Sam's budget deficit is now large, 'we also have a huge economy, which means that things aren't as scary as you might think' ('Till Debt Does Its Part,' [The New York Times,] August 28). Whew! No cause for much concern, for the size of America's GDP swamps the size of the budget deficit.

"During the Bush years, however, Mr. Krugman preached a different gospel. For example, in his February 11, 2005 column--devoted to condemning tax cuts--he insisted that 'the deficit is indeed a major problem.'

"So let's take Mr. Krugman's advice and get some perspective. In 2005, when Mr. Krugman insisted that government's budget deficit was 'indeed a major problem,' that deficit was 2.5 percent of GDP. Today, when Mr. Krugman no longer is very concerned about the budget deficit, that deficit will be about 11 percent of GDP."

Ok, so why bother with Professor Krugman's various infelicities? Because he is a big gun and if such big guns are allowed to carry on with their bad ideas unchecked, there is certainly going to be a high price to pay. Not that refuting them is always going to stem their influence--they often play to wishful thinking and arguments are not very effective means by which to counter their pitch. But one has to try--going down in defeat is far less painful if one has made the effort to set things right.

Today the Left's pitch is effective, in large measure, because George W. Bush has undermined any coherent defense of American values, mainly by his tax and spend policies as well as with his very suspect behavior when it came to the military measures the US took under his watch, indeed, under his command. So when it comes to resisting Leftist policies from President Obama and his academic cheerleaders, it is hopeless to rely on Republicans. What might do the trick is for those of us to keep on watch and exert pressure with criticism who aren't tainted with Bushism.
The Burden of Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

It was a contribution that the French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre made to 20th century thinking, within his Existentialist outlook, to point out that although human beings are, unlike other stuff in the world, free to choose, this freedom is a big burden to them. For Sartre the burden came from the absence of God and any of helpful moral standards, a kind of absurd freedom that human beings must suffer instead of enjoy. Yet even if you acknowledge that there are standards for people to follow in their lives, standards by which to tell right from wrong, it is still not so very easy to make the choice the proper way.

So while for centuries most people lived in servitude and wanted out from under, once some did manage to free themselves--or were helped to freedom--it wasn't always something they welcomed with open arms. The reason isn't so difficult to see.

Freedom means not only choice but also responsibility. Free men and women have to face up to the fact that it is up to them to do the right thing, to find out what that is and to make the effort to do it. The zillions of small and large decisions made by them all require some attention, although because people can cultivate habits--like the habit of driving carefully, of working out, or of being polite to neighbors and such--it isn't always terribly burdensome to have to choose. They can, with admitted initial difficulty, commit themselves to a wise and prudent course and then stick to it and that way not need to handle every choice anew.

Still, the very prospect of being able to go wrong with how one acts can be frightening, so many folks escape into mindless routines or accept other people's rule over them. Just think of this health care mess--isn't it possible that millions simply don't want to have to cope with having to prepare for the prospect of ill health, of having to think ahead and save up and choose a good insurance system early enough in their lives with which to anticipate getting older and more frail? Instead of taking up the challenge oneself, it seems it's simpler and easier to get a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats to handle it all. Never mind that that assumes other people are responsible for one instead of oneself. Never mind that one is signing up for some kind of bondage and relinquishing one's liberty. But it seems such a hassle to start having to think of what the future may bring and how one needs to forgo current benefits so as to make sure enough that the future will not be left unmanaged.

Trouble is that this temptation to escape freedom is readily accommodated by those who like it when they are made to be in charge of others. Nothing like getting control of portions of other people's lives, to feel that macho and saintly feeling! Thus, in their eagerness to unburden themselves of responsibility, many folks find it ping to entrust the politicians and bureaucrats with jobs they don't like to do themselves. And this will make it seem that some folks are heroes, great people, leaders of us all--like the late Senator Ted Kennedy who recently, posthumously, found himself virtually canonized just because he took it upon himself to take care of people (with other people's resources, of course).

Sartre was on to something. Freedom isn't so easy to handle. But I would like to amend his thinking by suggesting that when one does assume the responsibilities that come with freedom, one will have something to be proud of. One will have lived up to the task of a human being to shoulder one's own problems--maybe with a little help from friends--and not dump dealing with them on other people who, after all, have problems of their own to deal with. And there is always getting together with others quite apart from the political. That, of course, also involved having to figure out which associations are the wisest, which are hazardous. But it will help one not only to act freely but to make as sure as one can that others are also free to choose for themselves.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Why Exactly is Slavery Wrong?

Tibor R. Machan

Hardly anyone in America disputes that slavery is wrong. It's an institution that must be prohibited, never to be readmitted into society. Indeed, slavery is so wrong that it is very tempting for decent men and women to devote time and resources to ferret it out abroad, wherever it is still being practice in measures large or small.

But why is slavery so wrong, so horrible? It is, simply put, because it obliterates an individual's self-governance or sovereignty. It takes over that person's life by others who have not obtained any authority to do this. Of course one can have peaceful relationships with others that could superficially appear like slavery does--when one is employed by another, virtually night and day; the difference is, however, that employment is voluntary. It avoid subjugating another against his or her will but involves coming to mutually agreed to terms. Sure, at times one party might be hard up a good bit and will more easily yield to the terms another wants but still, the employment relationship even at its most unpleasant contains the exit option. You are free to exit it and no one may go capture and return you to the employer. You are free, even if you may go hungry for a while.

Slavery, in contrast, means you are not free even if you're terribly well fed, even if your health is well taken care of by your master, even if you are being educated at your master's expense, even if your retirement is guaranteed. If the condition of your existence involves being coerced to perform services for someone, if you may not leave without loss of everything, if you are obligated to others regardless of your refusal to give your consent, you then are enslaved or, at best, suffer the condition of severe involuntary servitude.

Yet, while nearly no one would support slavery, the kind where on person is said to own another--which is morally impossible--millions believe in the idea that you belong to society, that you are not sovereign but in bondage to the rest, somehow. The most forceful expression of this idea comes from the French father of sociology, August Comte, who wrote:

"Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…[Comte's favored system,] Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right[s], constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely" (Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion [Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973], pp. 212-30).

And many others promote this kind of collective slavery, all over the modern academy, in prominently published books, at conferences, in Op Ed pages, in prominent political speeches, everywhere. Yes, we are surrounded by loud voices that champion the very idea that used to mar whatever element of morality American culture had going for it, namely, slavery. You do not have a right to your life, to your liberty, to your resources, nothing. This is what is now advocated in books like The Myth of Ownership (Thomas Nagel, Liam Murphy) and The Cost of Rights (Cass Sunsten, Stephen Holmes). Well rewarded philosophers, like Charles Taylor of Canada's McGill University--recent recipient of the hefty Templeton Prize--proselytize that you belong to your community, that it is the community that has the right to your life and not you. This is the exact outlook that was defended by East German communists who justified shooting those who tried to jump over the Berlin war by claiming that these were, after all, thieves who were stealing the society's labor! "... In Germany the phrase for chattel slaves or indentured servants was Leibeigenen, for the bodies belonged to their owners; now we have the new concept of Geisteigene, for minds and spirits are also part of the new social property relations. When a bureaucracy considers itself to be the owner of literature, then it has the absolute personal right not only to cultivate its own garden but also to remove ruthlessly such weeds as it deems harmful." [Francois Bondy, "European Diary, Exist This Way," Encounter, 4/81, pp. 42-3] This very thing can be said about when a bureaucracy considers itself to be the owner of all wealth, of what the citizenry earns or comes by through peaceful means.

Collectivism of this sort is in principle the very same thing as slavery. Yet is it now being advocated in the United States of America. And it is terribly wrong and must be stopped however sweet the words are with which it's championed. When will those of us who refuse to submit to national health service be deemed to be weeds who need to be removed ruthlessly? I am not being paranoid--it has happened in the 20th century in superbly civilized Europe (a place loved by American liberals now for its wonderful welfare states) and can easily happen in the 21st unless Americans refuse to submit. Some already show this kind of disdain toward those who oppose their way!
What Reality has Society?

Tibor R. Machan

The question of how real is society can arise whenever people make reference to "obligations that citizens have to society," obligations in the name of which individual liberties are said to need restriction. (Other ways of putting the ideas is "obligatory service to the common good, public interest, etc.") Especially the liberty to own, trade, exchange, hoard, save, and so forth. The claim is that this kind of liberty may not be "absolute" because of those enforceable social obligations or responsibilities everyone has. (Especially anyone who has united with others to form a business corporation--the CSR or corporate social responsibility ruse, is what I humbly consider it.)

Please bear with me while I take you on this little philosophical journey. I teach and every year since the fall of 1970 I have met my various classes and taught for them various philosophy courses. I have obligations to my classes--for example, to know my subject, to arrive on time each period, make my assignments and grading policies clear to them, etc.

What, then, are my classes? Best as I have been able to determine over the more than four decades of dealing with them is that they are groups of individual students with a common chosen objective, namely, to become familiar with the subject matter of the course they are all taking. The class is, you might say, a group with a common educational purpose.

Is society something like this? A group with a common purpose?

That seems like a candidate except that members of my university classes are, as young adults, free to sign up or reject signing up for the pursuit that's the objective of the course they may or may not come to take. No one may enroll any of them without their explicit or sometime implicit consent--the latter if the course is part of a package of courses that amount to a concentration or major which includes it. But consent it crucial.

When one is part of a society one can join inadvertently, by being born to those who are already part of it. No consent is required, not at least initially. And when one is born into a society, unlike when one signs up for a class, one isn't assuming various obligations, although if one wishes to remain a part the others may impose some, few, elementary requirements--no killing, no theft, no assault, no similar aggressive conduct is acceptable, so those who choose to engage in these will be banished (e.g., to jail). (Remember Devil's Island? That was the idea of it.) Or one can join by requesting that one be admitted as a member--immigration is one such way).

Now some societies have rules that are imposed on members and some of these are reasonable, just, but others can be anything but. If they aren't reasonable and just, they aren't really fit for human membership. Some clubs within a society could, of course, exist that has rules that would make a large, human society unjust. For example, in some subgroups one might have to give up all of one's belongings or renounce eating on Fridays or even worship at the feet of some select members of the group. So long as membership isn't mandatory, this could well be acceptable--one size does not fit all.

But the larger society, the one into which one can be born, would only have rules that derive from what the members are all about, human beings. A human society, in other words, needs to accommodate human nature, just as an ant or bee or termite society would only be fit for its membership if it accommodated the nature of those members. This is not so with a university class I or thousands of other teachers teach since apart from needing to fit human nature, classes must also fit the purposes for which they exist, such as learning about biology or philosophy or law. One in effect takes an oath when one signs up for a class and if one seriously breaches that oath, one can be ejected (as many students routinely are).

Now what rules would fit a human society per se, just as such, a human society, with no special purpose that some members might like to sign up for? It depends upon human nature. Which is where the idea of natural law and natural rights comes from. By being natural, based on human nature, on what everyone has to be just to be human, these laws and rights indicate what rules members need to accept as well as what rules they may reject as unsuitable to human social life. Thus a society that has rampant violence, corruption, etc., as its constituent parts would not be fit for human inhabitation.

What then of the various claims that the membership has numerous obligations to serve society? What about a position like this one: “The ability that any of us have to earn income and acquire wealth depends only partly on our own individual efforts. It relies as well on the operation of political, economic, and social institutions that make it possible for any of us to ‘earn a living.’ . . .Viewed in this light, those deductions from my paycheck can be seen as reimbursements to society for that portion of my earnings derived from social goods” William E. Hudson, The Libertarian Illusion: Ideology, Public Policy, and the Assault on the Common Good (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008), p. 43.

Sorry, this won't do. It would--and does, where it prevails--amount to imposing involuntary servitude on members of society, even if most members do benefit from the various features of the society; nothing may be imposed on members apart from having to act peacefully, non-aggressively. Anything else would amount to oppression, subjugation and the removal the most essential element of a bona fide human society, namely, respect for individual liberty.
On Freedom's Advances

Tibor R. Machan

The freedom of central concern to human beings is that of the adult individual not being intruded up, not governed by others no authorized to do so. Different types of freedom are sometimes talked about but they don't concern the law--such as being free of headaches or to fly off to a pleasant vacation spot. Those kinds of freedom can best be secured when one is free in the first sense, free of the aggression of one's fellows.

Of course, norms that are significant in community affairs needed being well enough understood before they could be tried out in practice. For centuries on end the freedom basic in human relations was constantly, often systematically crushed--as was done by slavery, serfdom, and similar institutions, or class systems wherein some were deemed superior to others by birth and thus entitle to rule them attests to this.

Nor is there any clear sign that steady advance toward realizing freedom--to use the title of Tom G. Palmer's new book of superb essays published at the Cato Institute--is forthcoming. It ought to, of course, but what ought to be done can be severely neglected. This is both because an understanding of the implications of the right to individual liberty grew slowly and because even once it was well and widely enough understood it was also widely and powerfully resisted by those whose rule over others was challenged.

Even today the most ingenious rationalizations are being regularly cooked up by theorists whom I call cheerleaders of statism. Those who are loyal to individual liberty simply cannot afford to relax their vigilance, never. To take a break from the effort may be necessary now and then, so as to enjoy what liberty one does possess and to be rejuvenated for resuming the fight. But such tasks never get completed since there is always a new crop of hopeful thugs ready to cash in on any relaxation by freedom's warriors.

As to the way understanding freedom has advanced, we can appreciated it from reflecting on how for many centuries the main focus on liberty dealt with various groups of people getting rid of other groups bent on oppressive them. Thus, for example, when Machiavelli identified the main task of the prince (or government) it was to secure as best as possible the freedom and independence of the principality, the country that was under his rule. This didn't much concern the freedom or liberty of individuals but it was a step in the right direction--not unlike the way talk of the self-determination of a country or group of people is an advance toward the most important form of self-determination, namely, that of adult human beings. Countries have no selves but the people who make up countries do and reference to their self-determination can be understood as a valuable step toward the main objective, namely, establishing the legal regime of individual rights. (It was John Locke who successfully redirected the concern for liberty toward individuals, away from states.)

Don't get me wrong, in human affairs there is no automatic, historically driven progress toward any good thing--even in science and technology there is need for vigilance otherwise regress will set in. That's because unlike the rest of the living world that is subject to evolutionary forces, when it comes to people with their free will and moral responsibility as central aspects of their lives, nothing moves forward without the personal effort needed to drive it.

Unfortunately, while over the long haul there is little dispute that individual liberty has made significant advances--at the hands of its dedicated champions on all the fronts where they need to exert the different types of effort--there is at the present evidence of regress, too. The promoters of human subjugation aren't unintelligent, stupid people; they are often quite vicious politically, yes, but not without brains. Just like all the minions and apologists of the monarchs throughout the ages, they are aware of the myriad ways individual liberty can be curbed, arrested, and reduced by means of fancy, sophistic excuses and clever, righteous calls for sacrifices for the alleged public interest or common good. (Check out a recent book devoted to this mission, written by one William E. Hudson, titled The Libertarian Illusion: Ideology, Public Policy, and the Assault on the Common Good [Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008], wherein many old and new twists and turns are deployed so as to enhance the power of the state and deprive individuals of their liberty (which could be used to resist that power).

So please consider this missive as a reminder of the truth of that famous clarion call: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance"--or as it was put originally in 1790 by an Irish judge, John Philpot Curran, "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt."