Column on The Proper Promotion of Liberty

The Proper Promotion of Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The policy of imposing liberal regimes around the globe has proven to be a disaster and no wonder. It is simply not feasible to coerce people to be free–the idea is an oxymoron.

It doesn’t follow, however, that countries that are largely committed, even if only rhetorically, to a regime of human liberty–one that follows the political principles of the Declaration of Independence–can do nothing to advance freedom outside their borders. Sure, this is nearly impossible if they are themselves only so-so committed to a free system, if their own legal order is a mixture between tyranny and liberty.

Those abroad who have a strong interest in maintaining their unjustified rule over a population–e.g., the likes of leaders in China, Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, etc.–can then point out whenever they are being criticized for their oppressive policies that there are similar ones where the criticism comes from. The hypocrisy of it all will be glaring and will tend to discredit the critic’s position even if, to the extent it stresses the values of human liberty, it contains merit. Indeed, in some cases such hypocritical criticism may undermine the very position in favor of liberty, having shown up the critic as inconsistent, wobbly about the ideals on which the criticism is based.

But still those in government responsible for forging foreign policy could, if they had their wits about them, stress that what they are promoting is a system of liberty, never mind the lapses within their own domestic policies. Even an occasional liar can advocate telling the truth if he admits to his failings at the same time.

Of course, those outside the government, who have no direct hand in embracing a mixed up political philosophy–like the one we find in most Western countries and which are often being shown up for the confusing idea they are by critics both at home and abroad–are not hampered by this problem of sounding hypocritical when they champion liberty. When members of the Atlas Foundation or the Cato Institute travel across the world teaching about human liberty to thousands who attend their seminars, they do not have to embrace any inconsistencies. They can make it abundantly clear that they oppose their own system’s ill advised attempts to combine free and tyrannical policies. Anyone who is in favor of liberty across the globe and realizes how self-defeating it is to try to advance this cause by means of force of arms can give their support to those private groups that are consistent advocates of the free system.

It is, of course, necessary to be well educated about the nature of such mixed systems and to learn how to identify the impact of the policies that reflect the principles of liberty versus those that violate it. When, for example, loose talk blames the free market for the recent financial fiasco, it is necessary to be able to rebut such nonsense, to show that (a) the financial mess had nothing to do with genuine libertarian policies and that (b) prolonged interventionism has produced the mess (e.g., the machinations of the Federal Reserve and the innumerable government regulatory agencies that have distorted the principles of liberty throughout the economy and produced perverse incentives). There are now many fine books and papers, by excellent scholars, making this case in both technical and lay language and some command of these will help make the case.

Even the government–or those in it who do favor liberty in consistent ways–can use some of the tools of diplomacy to advance the case for liberty abroad. Government officials need not blindly comply with the wishes of foreign officials as they honor their own corrupt systems and can, instead, make their contempt evident by various subtle means.

The cause of liberty merits the sustained exercise of the human capacity for ingenuity in teaching important lessons to those who need to learn them. None of this guarantees success, of course, but success is far more likely if the promotion of the free system is itself unmarred by inconsistency and hypocrisy.

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