Column on the Power of Freedom

The Power of Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

At
this time when most people are clamoring, or at least hoping for,
economic revival, the major debate centers around how it could be
achieved.  One side, mainly the current administration and its
supporters in the academy, believe in some variety of stimulus initiated
by the federal government–funneling funds (taken from taxes and
borrowed from future generations and foreign governments) to the various
state governments that are to use them to pay for public work projects,
improving infrastructure, etc.  The other side, mainly more or less
consistent free market champions, believe that removing government
regulations, heavy taxes, and government management or regimentation
will more readily help the economy get back into shape.  

To
attach names here is a bit testy since few are always direct about
their proposals but let’s just say Princeton University’s and
New York Times
columnist Paul Krugman is among those urging the former approach, while
George Mason University’s Professor Don Boudreaux among the latter.
Both are public intellectuals and voice their views in various prominent
forums, so one can easily check what they believe.

Let
me explain why I believe the alternative promoted by Professor
Boudreaux is fundamentally sound, while Krugman’s approach wrong.  I do
not imagine for a moment that Dr. Boudreaux fully agrees with my
reasoning–his may be different.  But here is what seems to me to give
substantial support to those who advocate government getting out of the
way, at least at the most fundamental level of analysis.


   
As best as I understand human nature, for people to live and live
successfully, they need to have the opportunity to take the initiative
in their lives, on every front but especially when it comes to aiming to
prosper economically.  In the fields of economics and business this is
often referred to as the
entrepreneurial
spirit or attitude.  Adult men and women make it through their lives
more or less successfully depending on how intensely they face up to the
challenge of coping and progressing in all their various tasks.  
Carpe diem,
is one way to summarize the point–grab the day–although the sentiment
didn’t initially pertain to taking the initiative but to focusing just
on today!  (That is not what makes the economy hum, not what gets one to
prosper.)  

What
the anti-statists are confident about is that people will normally
actively, consciously pay attention to the world and make the most of
the opportunities it contains for advancing one’s lot.  There is no
guarantee that this will in fact always happen but those who have
confidence in the power of freedom see it as the only option.  For even
those who advocate government programs as substitutes for the initiative
and entrepreneurship of the citizenry admit, implicitly, that it all
depends on at least some folks getting pro-active, moving things ahead.
 The pro-liberty people rely, implicitly at least, on this being the
best general approach and a likely one because human beings are
naturally self-starters.  This is what makes them different in the
world, their capacity to initiate the actions and institutions needed to
flourish.

Those
who are in favor of the governmental approach, via stimuli and such,
basically believe, even if they don’t make this explicit, that most
people cannot get going on their own, that we are like invalids or
infants and need to be pushed around to get going.  And once we are
pushed around the push needs to be continued because otherwise inertia
sets in.  And in one limited respect they have a point–once the
institutions of society have acclimated the citizenry to dependence on
governmental boosts, they may form the bad habit of relying on it so as
to make useful moves in their lives.  The more this policy spreads, the
more it is likely that fewer and fewer will take the initiative on their
own.  

At
this point it is possible that for the entrepreneurial spirit to once
again awaken, it will be necessary for the people to experience the cost
of having abandoned it, of having it stymied by the entitlement
mentality and the public policies which have encouraged it.  

But
there is an even more fundamental obstacle to a recovery, which is that
the intellectual elite in many modern societies holds a view of human
nature that denies human initiative and affirms, instead, the idea that
we are all moving only when something moves us from the outside (or from
some hard wiring in our make-up).  This view of human nature, as
essentially passive and not equipped to start moving ahead without
prompters, invites the paradoxical approach to public policy of those
who advocate the use of stimulus: only they have the capacity to get
things moving, the rest of us do not!

Unless
it is widely, prominently recognized that economic growth, including
employment, investment, research, etc., must acknowledge that human
beings are initiators and not passive, potted plants, the economy isn’t
going to get going. Only if men and women are fully free will the power
of freedom, namely, their own initiative, restart their engine of
progress and prosperity.

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