Column on Freedom’s Advances

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." 

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