Monday, January 19, 2009

Wherefore Art Thou Liberty?

Over a number of months I have been mulling how liberty can be advanced. I believe that I have finally started to make headway, so I thought I would share some of my ideas.

A few pressures exist on any society or nation that adopts a framework (like the United States has a Constitution) that provides for liberty. The political leanings of a society change over time as new ideas and new people, slowly change the original viewpoints. A free and successful society can flourish while striving upwards, but faces less pressure to maintain freedom’s zeal once at that inevitable zenith. Societies change because people change and their ideas change. No framework can prevent digression forever.

The first 120 years or so of American history revealed us capable of maintaining a great amount of liberty, but as the ideas of socialism and progressivism began to infect our thinking, the classical answers were losing their emotional punch. The progressive politics in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s began to spread and individual liberty began to decline. The Income Tax was made permanent, conscription grew, liquor was banned, and slowly, but surely, the government took a greater role in the economy. This role exploded under Herbert Hoover and then was cemented by Roosevelt. Today, the economic liberty that Americans once enjoyed would shock the sensibilities of those accustomed to governmental parenting, and inculcated with fairytales of apocalypse that liberty supposedly breeds.

On immigration, don’t get me wrong, I am all for it. How can I begrudge someone attracted to America’s peace and prosperity while living in grinding poverty? Many people, however, immigrate to countries with greater prosperity without fully comprehending the freedoms that lead to prosperity. I would wager a substantial sum that amongst most nationalities wanting to come to United States, few, if any, are propelled to find likeminded adherents to Hayek, Rand, or Rothbard.

Lastly, with success there is a tendency to embrace laziness and shortsightedness. California is a clear example of this. While they have had their share of economic calamities in the last 10 years they still don’t feel compelled to make the hard choices needed to avoid them in the future. There is an arrogance that wealth and popularity is endless, and government intervention in economic decision-making has no effect. Even with staggering budget deficits, horrendous unemployment, and a massive outflow of domestic emigration, they have refused to recognize the dull reality creeping in on them.

With failure, the incentives are the opposite. By the early 1980’s, Ireland’s status as a backwater was unquestioned. The impetus for change was thick in the air, and over the next 25 years they chose for themselves a staggering number of fruitful changes. The Irish sold off government owned enterprises, and slashed taxes, spending, and regulation. In barely a generation, the British hegemony was broken. With a surging economy, wealth and confidence soared, and for the first time in a thousand years Irish noses rose above those of its stodgy neighbor to the east.

The advance of freedom is mostly inevitable. A Darwinian process where individuals pursue their best interests rewards those freer societies with larger and smarter populations. I don’t think anyone can point to a time in the past where so many around the world enjoyed such freedom as now. It moves in fits and starts, and rises and falls in waves, but nonetheless, freedom is on the march, just not always where we hang out.

The academic arena is an important one and trying to defeat the ideas of would be authoritarians is noble, but not everyone can take part at that level. While new ideas almost exclusively come from the intelligentsia, they do get it wrong from time to time (think Communism, Fascism, Phrenology and Eugenics) and are often rejected by a recalcitrant public holding to tradition long enough to weather the edicts of excitable eggheads.

It is fun to best someone in a hard fought debate, but the battle of ideas should not come at the expense of failing to cultivate those most open to and in need of change. If we want to be at the front, moving liberty foward, we need to find the people and places where economic liberty stands in most glaring contrast to the failures of government. For all of us who support individual liberty, I recommend that we do a few things. Continue to sharpen our knowledge. Simplify our persuasion into short and easily understood methods. Keep our eyes and ears open for opportunities to enlighten the minds of our friends and neighbors.

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