Believing in Liberty
Many believe in theoretical liberty but aren’t ready to see it in practice.
There is a long tradition of liberty in this country. It was a desire for greater liberty that moved early revolutionaries to challenge the greatest empire in the world. Liberty was the central focus of our nation’s founding documents. Liberty has, in times past, inspired brave men and women to take up arms in defense of family, faith, and freedom. Many have willingly sacrificed their God-given right to life, in order to protect liberty for future generations. History has repeatedly proven that no army can defeat a people motivated by this desire to secure or defend liberty at all costs. Recall the inspirational words of the patriot, Patrick Henry, “give me liberty or give me death!” This sentiment is not bound by the American tradition. Classical antiquity had the famous, republican stoic, Cato, who, in the famed revolutionary-era play by Joseph Addison cries out:
It is not now time to talk of aught
But chains or conquest, liberty or death [i]
The black flags carried by the defenders of Barcelona during the year-long Siege of Barcelona in 1713, read “Live Free or Die” (a motto adopted by the state of New Hampshire in 1945). The national motto of Greece is “Liberty or Death”. Honduras’s motto reads, “Free, sovereign and independent”. San Marino’s motto is most succinct, “Liberty”. Liberty is a universally desired right, if not always an inheritance.
Because of the exalted status of this natural right you would think it quite an easy task to convince people to fully embrace liberty; yet too often it is treated as a nebulous idea. We define liberty by its synonym, freedom, but ignore the practical implications of what it means to live in a free society.
So what does it really mean to be free?
I contend that liberty and freedom are best understood in terms of how humans act and interact with each other. This mechanism of human action is best exemplified in the market process. By nature, all beings are self-interested creatures. Even when we give charitably of our substance, we must admit to the gratification we feel when lifting others up. Adam Smith remarked on what he saw as the nexus between self-interest and charity,
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. [ii]
We are motivated to take actions that we perceive will have profitable outcomes for us personally; and, as a result, society at large benefits. Sometimes this is measured in dollars and cents; other times there is an emotional or spiritual dividend. Furthermore, when two parties meet to discuss how they might fill each other’s needs, they do so with the understanding that either of the two can walk away from the bargaining table at any time. This process is absolutely essential to liberty. When we speak of restrictions or infringements upon our liberties, we’re often referring, in a practical sense, to our inability to transact business, freely associate, keep and direct our resources, or live in peace enjoying the fruits of our labors. These are essential cogs in the wheel of free enterprise. Free enterprise, as a system, is founded on three basic elements:
1) Private Property Rights
- The right to own property is a derivative of our right to life because our lives are spent making decisions about how to direct our faculties, which are our primary possession.
- Our labor, mixed with resources, creates a homestead right to physical property. This concept moved humanity beyond the hunter/gatherer age through to the agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions.
2) Freedom of Choice
- In acknowledging that each person has their own value scale and that value itself is subjective, we must admit also that the choices individuals make in directing their labor and resources, i.e. voluntary exchanges, should be left to them.
- Appropriating private property for the “greater good” is an illegitimate violation of personal liberty.
3) Self-Regulating Markets
- Adam Smith used the phrase “invisible hand” to describe the process of self-interested buyers and sellers seeking to optimize their outcomes by analyzing factors such as supply & demand. Fully functioning markets have the least degree of coercive external interference.
- Government interference in markets creates malinvestments which send the wrong signals to producers and consumers, usually in the form of a distorted price mechanism. Inevitably, this leads to a boom/bust cycle, unduly harming the most vulnerable members of society.
Many programs, supported by conservatives and liberals alike, fly in the face of the tenets of free enterprise. Consider the strong support for public roads, regulation of food safety, social security, licensure laws, and public utilities. While obviously very convenient, these programs are bought and paid for with at least a measure of liberty.
Is it worth it? Many believe some minimal trade-off of individual liberty for collective security or convenience is justified. While it is true that viable solutions to today’s problems may be proposed by civil servants, it takes a lot more discipline, and an inclination towards greater personal responsibility, to allow the system of free enterprise to reveal the best solutions.
Prison inmates are provided three square meals a day, a job, a roof over their heads, leisure time, protection, and education… all free of charge; but most would trade all of these conveniences for their freedom. How ironic that those who benefit the most from a multitude of free government services would be willing to give them up in exchange for their freedom. The more government provides for us, the less we are responsible for ourselves, and our addiction to convenience and safety moves us ever closer to a state of bondage.
So, the question I pose is this: Do you really believe in liberty? Do you believe that free enterprise is the best system for bringing prosperity to the greatest number of people? Do you believe entrepreneurship, innovation, and ingenuity can solve society’s problems? If so, you’re ready to see liberty move from theory to practice. Welcome to the movement.
Author’s Note: In our next few installments we will discuss why free enterprise is the solution to society’s problems, and what practical steps we can take in Utah to advance a system of free enterprise.
[i] Addison, Cato – A Tragedy, Act II, Scene 4
[ii] Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, pt.I, sec.I, ch.I, par.I