THE CONDITIONS OF LIBERTY
April 22, 2014
Liberty is disappearing from the world, little by little. With taxes going up, real (inflation-adjusted) wages going down, wealth and power consolidating in expansionist governments and global corporations, especially banks but also food leviathans like Monsanto, it is impossible to deny that what some are calling “the deep state” is becoming the prevailing governing structure of our time. The “deep state” encompasses government/military facilities and corporations via myriad hierarchies, overlapping boards and directorships, “think tanks,” and contractual ties.
The police state, moreover, is on the march like never before. There are now hundreds of cases of police brutalizing people, sometimes to death, or shooting to kill on the slightest provocation (important and recent cases here, here, here, here, and here; with a case in New Mexico drawing massive protests here). A once-respected profession is clearly attracting sadists and sociopaths. Homeland Security has militarized police departments around the country, having offered millions in grants for equipment once seen only on battlefields. SWAT teams are being used to go after people selling raw milk or growing food without government authorization. I started to write that in the U.S. you are now in more danger from cops than you are from criminals; but today the only differences are that the former wear uniforms and badges, and collect government paychecks.
This has all happened despite the fact that in the wake of Ron Paul’s efforts, those of groups like Campaign for Liberty and of educational organizations like the Ludwig von Mises Institute, there are now probably more people calling themselves libertarians and more people interested in libertarian ideas than ever before. Ideas about liberty circulate in the blogosphere and on hundreds of websites. Competent speakers travel the country presenting a lucid case for Constitutionally limited government. Their writings are readily available. But they’ve been unable to make headway either within the neocon controlled GOP, in a hostile academic community, or in a culture largely indifferent to the world of ideas.
There are plenty of countervailing pressures with enormous resources behind them. Look at how much the Obama regime has spent promoting its Obamacare train wreck. Look at the money being poured into foreign wars and interventions. American academia remains a cesspool of political correctness and intellectual conformity. Schools by and large have turned into obedience training centers for future employees (taxpayers) and consumers. Common Core assures that mass illiteracy will increase among the non-homeschooled.
Libertarians act as if the world is moving towards embracing their ideas. They are in denial. Too few people in the general public care about any of these issues unless something affects them directly. Many are hunkering down. They’ve given up. Liberty is slowly being vanquished in the country that most consciously gave rise to it: the United States of America.
A solid, self-conscious philosophy of liberty has appeared just once in human history. Its development wasn’t easy. It began with the 1100 Charter of Liberties and the Magna Carta of 1215; English kings promptly ignored then. Further steps were taken with the 17th century Levellers and, still more, with the English Bill of Rights. Liberty finally took root when the British Colonists declared independence and established their own government first under the Articles of Confederation and then the U.S. Constitution. The entire process (from 1100 to 1791 when the Constitution was ratified) took 691 years! Arguably that didn’t finish the job!
If the case for liberty is so strong, why was it so hard to create? Why are free societies so rare? And why is liberty now fading? Why is it proving impossible to sustain?
The answers to these questions lie with what I’ve begun calling the conditions of liberty. If these conditions aren’t satisfied, liberty won’t happen. If conditions for liberty have disappeared, it will die. This is the cardinal problem in twenty-first century America.
First, let’s get clear what we are talking about. Let’s distinguish liberty from freedom. Persons are free if they can choose meaningfully between A and B and more broadly, pursue their own paths in life rather than being forced down paths chosen for them by others. Liberty is the state of affairs in which the majority of the population (those not in jail for crimes against other persons) is free.
Freedom means the freedom to choose meaningfully between live options, but it does not mean freedom to do anything one pleases. A hedonistic ethic of license does not lead to liberty. In practice, it leads to short-circuited lives, broken families, ruined neighborhoods, wrecked economies, and general social breakdown. The masses prefer the security of stability. If something disrupts this, they will demand government do something about it. This matter is worth exploring. I am not sure how many libertarians understand it.
Think of the third of my Four Cardinal Errors. A central condition of maintaining liberty is a civilization-spanning moral compass, a general recognition of right versus wrong. General agreement on fundamental moral truths about the value of human life, the rightness of freedom within the bounds of morality, the justice of honestly acquired property and honest free transactions, and the reasonableness of treating others as persons, not objects, is crucial even if we disagree on specifics here and there. If both the general population and those in places of power are “immersed” in a moral view of the universe, this will suffuse the culture and build it from the bottom up instead of imposing it from the top down. The latter doesn’t work. The “war on drugs” proves that. But moral people don’t use illegal drugs. Rule of law without massive political centralization will be possible with a moral people, because the latter respect the idea of law and maintain it themselves. They will pass it to their children.
The Founding Fathers understood that in any population there is a minority drawn to power. This minority will pursue whatever paths to power are available, be they loopholes in documents like the Constitution or lapses of public vigilance. If wealth leads to power, this minority will pursue wealth (and did). Understanding this minority and placing checks on it ought to be a priority item. As a condition of liberty, morality places checks on the power of leadership via a vigilant critical mass in the public. Vigilance is indeed the price of liberty. A vigilant critical mass will see to it that leaders play by the same rules they play by. People will then trust their leaders, as they trust each other.
Checks on the majority are also necessary. If the lion’s share of its members do not place checks on their own actions from within—via their sense of a valid difference between right and wrong—then others demand that checks be placed on them from without. Only government can do this. I’ve occasionally called this the paradox of liberty. Liberty is not license. To have it, the majority of persons must reduce the range of freedoms to within morally acceptable boundaries. Otherwise their range of freedoms will reduced for them.
This all implies that, all other things being equal, there is no absolute answer to the question of how small government should be. A moral people will have a greater capacity for self-rule, and be able to keep government small. In a population filled with drug-users, thieves, scam artists, etc., the more responsible will demand larger government. The masses, we should always remember, want stability. If they have to choose between stability and freedom, they will choose the former. Not every population is ready for self-rule. There are places in the world whose “choice” is between dictatorship and chaos. Think of Somalia.
The only moral system that has showed promise at satisfying all the conditions for liberty is rooted in Christianity. The prevalence of Christianity, in my opinion, goes a long distance towards explaining why liberty emerged in the West and nowhere else. A Christian worldview places God at the center and cites His commands in Scripture as the basis for proper conduct, whether towards oneself, family members, one’s affairs with money and business, and others generally. A debate has raged over to what extent, or whether, the Founding Fathers were building a Christian nation. John Adams, our second president, put it this way in 1798: “[W]e have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Yet during the 1800s, Western civilization slowly replaced the Christian worldview with that of materialistic naturalism (or materialism). This was the third of my Cardinal Errors. By the 1900s, the process was complete in the centers of intellectual influence where those in power looked for their most basic convictions. Materialistic naturalism places Man at the center: Enlightenment rational humanism. But Man is an abstraction; there are many of us, and we are quite different from one another. Our cultures are quite different from one another. Secular theories of morality reflect this. Not one such theory holds up under sustained criticism. Many philosophers followed anthropologists in becoming ethical relativists. According to ethical relativism, moral beliefs are cultural artifacts: useful fictions that compel people to behave but have no deeper truth or significance than stories we tell ourselves.
The most influential secular moral theory has been utilitarianism. Its major exponent was British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). Mill, whose classical liberalism is often cited as a precursor of libertarianism, held that we should pursue the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number, where happiness typically means pleasure and the absence of pain. Actions are right if they yield a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness; wrong if they yield the opposite. To many, this idea made superficial sense. But think it through: there is no reason to believe happiness is the highest good in any unqualified sense. Happiness for whom? You or the sociopath? And achieved how? Some people achieve happiness by dominating others. Moreover, is pain intrinsically bad? While presumably inflicting pain on others is wrong, pain often communicates important information that something is wrong in one’s body; in this case pain is a temporary good!
In societal practice, utilitarianism leads to debacles like the Tuskegee Experiments, in which human beings and their health were literally sacrificed so that “scientific medicine” could study—in all its supposed moral neutrality—the progress of a disease (syphilis). Utilitarian arguments are used to justify abortion on demand. They are increasingly employed by medical “ethicists” taking us toward acceptance of euthanasia. It is significant that in Belgium it is now legal for children with terminal illnesses to be euthanized if they request it and can show that they understand the consequences, whatever this amounts to. The new law extends one that had been in place since 2002, allowing euthanasia for adults. Europe is slightly ahead of the U.S. on this curve, partly because Enlightenment rational humanism happened there first and has deeper roots there.
The idea that we were wired for complete personal moral autonomy has proven to be the biggest illusion of the past 150 years. Populations gradually freed from a Christian-derived moral compass did not become proud, rational actors in Francis Bacon’s “new Atlantis.” They turned instead to mass consumption and mindless entertainment. Some turned to drugs, and some to pornography; markets responded. This illustrates an important point about libertarian free markets that is often lost: they are capable of generating great prosperity, but absent morality, are also capable of generating destruction. What, after all, is the largest trafficked commodity in the world in this era of “free trade”? Illegal drugs. What is the largest money maker on the World Wide Web. The answer: pornography.
So much for populations living “immersed” in materialistic naturalism. Our so-called leaders used the rationality of science and technology to make ever more powerful weapons, even as each generation drifted further from its Constitutional moorings than its predecessor. Food “science” was used to discover how adding mildly addictive flavor enhancers encourages still more mass consumption that earn profits for the corporations. Unfortunately, these also caused mass obesity, which in turn has led to other health problems. Out of Monsanto’s well-funded laboratories have come GMOs, the long term effects of which on the biosphere are unknown but probably not zero!
We began to lose the liberty our Founders bequeathed to us because we dismantled the checks on power that only a common Christian morality could supply. With the Ten Commandments forcible removal from state courthouses on specious legal reasoning and belief in God routinely mocked by pundits of various stripes ranging from comedians such as the late George Carlin to public intellectuals such as British biologist Richard Dawkins, nothing has replaced Christian morality. Utilitarianism neither places checks on power, nor does it provide the masses anything recognizable as a moral point of view.
We have thus seen the rise of the pseudo-ethic of “greed … is good” (Gordon Gekko, from the 1987 film Wall Street). Arguably “Gekko-ism” is the ethic of the “one percent” (it’s more like the .01%), the bankster class that has risen to power over the past couple of generations not through productive work but because of the end of reasonable regulations on banks such as Glass-Steagall, the rise of the bundled securities, the derivatives bubble, and “quantitative easing.”
This is the superelite I spoke of in Four Cardinal Errors, getting richer and more powerful each year while creating a world whose masses are increasingly cash-strapped.
Some believe it is too late, that this process has passed the point of no return, and that the West will pass through totalitarianism on its way to irreversible decline. I hope this is wrong, but I fear it may be right. There are lessons to be drawn, either way.
Markets cannot decide everything. Ludwig von Mises was a brilliant thinker. But when all is said and done, he had no interest in moral philosophy. He was essentially a materialist, a utilitarian by default, and his views on economics in civilization are tainted by the drawbacks of each. Ayn Rand, too, can be admired for her fierce independence. But she, too, was a materialist with a view of human nature that is just plain wrong. Her ideas marry Aristotle’s man-the-rational-animal to Enlightenment humanism (with a little Nietzsche thrown in for good measure). She, too, ridiculed those who believe in a “supernatural ghost.” There is no place in either’s views for the idea that man is a sinner in need of redemption, whose actions in society need to be checked by the authority of morality, standing above culture and the marketplace.
Recent libertarianism has moved in strange directions—strange, if their aim is effectiveness in society. Mises, whatever his strengths and weaknesses, was not an anarchist. Anarcho-capitalism has largely taken over the Mises Institute. This is the idea that anything government purports to do, free markets can do better; and that what free markets won’t support may make a good hobby but that’s all. “Let the market decide” becomes an incantation, however, not serious reasoning from where we are as a society. The movement towards anarchism is taking place in a political and economic environment in which, like it or not, more and more people are turning to government for their basic needs—in many cases through no fault of their own. A year or so ago I corresponded for a while with a gentleman who described himself as an anarcho-capitalist, for whom it was clearly more than a hobby. I asked him how he planned to encourage the masses to become anarcho-capitalists. His answer boiled down to persuading them, one at a time, with rational arguments, which meant persuading a lot of people to give up support systems that someday might be life-sustaining (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid). Good luck with that. Not even Ron Paul would have been able to cut these programs.
Markets can never be totally and unconditionally “free,” especially in materialistic societies. Markets give the masses what they want, without moral comment. If they want useful items in large numbers, the market will supply them if allowed to do so. Civilization will benefit. I am not saying otherwise. This is not an attack on the marketplace. It is an attempt at a realistic assessment, given mass habits, expectations, and the prevailing worldview. If the masses want to put chemicals in their bodies that don’t belong there, or have their unborn children killed, or take any number of other forms of destructive action, left to itself the market will supply all these, too. Does anyone seriously believe civilization will benefit?
There are readers, I am aware, who will see me as having capitulated to “statism” (the Mises Institute folks kicked me out some time ago). I would ask, even if you believe the federal government should get off pot users’ backs and legalize it, do you honestly believe there should be no laws or admonitions against Ponzi schemes beyond “let the buyer beware”? Tell that to elderly couples who have been scammed out of their life savings! Do you seriously believe there should be no laws against kiddie-porn? Sex-trafficking?
Finally, as I complete the last draft of this piece, Chile (where I now live) was just struck by a powerful 8.2 earthquake. Both damage and loss of life were minimized in affected cities because of building codes—codes taken seriously today but it is not clear would exist had the Chilean government not enacted regulations years ago that tall edificios be built for earthquake-resistance. Should these be repealed, so that Chile can end up like Haiti, where there are no codes and where the capital city was leveled by a 7.0 quake three years ago? Should there be no government patrols sent to affected areas to stop or prevent looting? Unfortunately, there are Chileans who will steal anything not nailed down—one of many indications I have seen that Chile is not ready for liberty. (Not that certain groups in the U.S. won’t loot, if the lights go out.)
Genuine liberty requires a civilization-wide moral compass and sense of responsibility that is largely self-enforcing, because a moral people does certain things and refrains from doing or allowing others. A moral compass places restrictions on actions, restrictions best acquired from their parents as children, which means, of course: stable, loving families. It puts in place the critical mass that ensures that the political class is on a short leash.
Too many libertarians have not thought through what this all involves. They stay inside their comfort zones of political philosophy and Austrian economics. Genuine liberty requires a Christian worldview, and must shun a superficially arrogant pseudo-rationalism that mocks Christianity and substitutes false idols on its altar, be they science, reason, markets, money, sex, or what-have-you.
Where do we go from here? Good question! There is so much to reverse that it probably can’t be accomplished in a generation, much less a two-term presidency! And we are rapidly running out of time! Many Christians, of course, believe we are in the “last days” prior to Christ’s return, and that He alone will set things right. No one, though, knows God’s timetable. Others believe that because of the fiscal irresponsibility of our elites we are looking at a game-changing “reset” when the dollar collapses and takes much of the world down with it. I don’t endorse this idea, but it isn’t impossible. One thing is for sure: unless libertarians break with materialist naturalism and help restore the Christian worldview seen in Founders like John Adams, for the time being they will go on spinning their wheels as liberty gets crushed under those of the “deep state.”
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