Is the Case for Liberty Too Extreme?
by Richard M. Ebeling
If there is one label more than any other that principled advocates of individual liberty are often stamped with it is that they are “extremists.” How can you be so extreme, it is said, what is wrong with a compromise between personal or economic freedom and some “reasonable” degree of government regulation, welfare legislation, and social intervention?
The first response that should be given when confronted with such an accusation is to inquire, with what is the friend of liberty being asked to compromise? The real answer, of course, is that the friend of liberty is being asked to compromise with the use of coercive force in human relationships.
Freedom or Coercion in Human Affairs
The simple fact is that human association may be based on peaceful and mutually beneficial agreement and exchange, or it may be based on one party in this human relationship threatening or using force to make the other party do something that he would not willingly do if he were free from the danger of violence.
Freedom is important not because a person might want to say, “yes,” to an offer that has been made to him, but because he might want to say, “no.” If an individual cannot say “no” without being threatened with some form of physical harm from the other person in the relationship, then that individual is not free.
Being a slave is to be required to do what someone else wants without one’s voluntary consent. It is to be coercively made the means to another’s ends or goals. That individual’s life is no longer his own. Instead, to the extent that he is made to serve the ends of another without his voluntary consent he is no longer a free man, but rather the property of another to be used as the slave-master wishes.
Often when the friend of freedom gives this reply he is accused, again, of going to extremes. But who, in this debate over freedom and coercion, is the actual extremist and who is the actual moderate? The advocate of state coercion in social affairs cannot stand the fact that people make choices, and undertake courses of action, of which he disapproves. He objects to the fact that people fail to follow the paths that his reason and values consider rational and good. Everything else is either chaotic or sinister.
The Social Engineer as Political Madman
In this sense, he is like the maniac of whom G.K. Chesterton speaks in his book, Orthodoxy. The madman, Chesterton says, is the one “who has lost everything except his reason…. He is not hampered by a sense of humor or by charity, or by the dumb uncertainties of experience. The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.” The madman has a “most sinister quality” of “connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze.”
The advocate of state coercion has, in this sense, been driven mad by the outcomes of a free society. If some men are poor while others are well-to-do, he cannot accept the idea that this is due to the natural scarcity of resources, or is merely as far as capitalism has yet been able to raise people’s standards of living in an on-going and time-consuming process of savings and investment. No, it must be because men have not submitted themselves to a plan — his plan — that his reason has given him, and not others, the superior wisdom and insight to see.
If some men receive lower pay than others, or do not have access to all the goods and services they desire, the advocate of state coercion — like the madman — often sees sinister motives and dark conspiracies. If some workers receive lower wages, it can’t be because of a lack of marketable skills or insufficient personal ambition to better themselves. No, it must be because of the businessman’s greed and unwillingness to pay “a fair wage,” or a plot among the employers to exploit their fellow human beings. The advocate of state coercion can see beneath the charade and he, of course, knows the regulation or intervention to put the conspirators in their place and remedy the problem.
The social madman has the answer and the solution for everything. He has no patience for ignorance, good intentions that go astray, or some natural scheme of things. And like the madman, he has no doubts about his knowledge, the goodness of his intentions and their outcome, or what the scheme of things should be turned into. Human freedom and its advocates are the irritants that he tolerates when he has to, but with which and with whom he never compromises. He has too much confidence in his own vision. In his mind, extremism in the defense of the state-molded “good society” is no vice.
Smoking and the Political Extremist
Let me try to explain this with two issues that have dominated social policy in the Western world over the last several years. The first one is the growing ban on smoking in virtually all public and private areas. In the “bad old days” it was taken to be common courtesy and good manners to ask others in an enclosed space if they minded if he, the smoker, wished to light up his cigar, cigarette, or pipe. If there were any objections, the smoker would either refrain or move to another place to enjoy his nicotine fix. Sometimes, non-smokers would be, in turn, well-mannered enough not to object if the smoke was not too much of a nuisance.
The antismoking advocate just cannot reconcile himself to the existence of others who gain pleasure from something of which he disapproves, and by people who weigh the enjoyment of the present more highly than the possible consequences of health problems in the future. Nor can he stand a world in which the market provides options to those with different preferences: restaurants, bars or other public places in which the proprietor may see the economic benefit of providing both smoking and non-smoking facilities, including ones in which some such places are completely smoke free while other places permit unrestricted smoking.
For the advocate of freedom, the market alternative is precisely the reasonable and moderate one. It recognizes and accepts the varieties and preferences among men and offers a compromise, a peaceful resolution, of the differences among them. And it leaves a wide avenue open for one group of men to reason and persuade another to modify their choices and forswear “a filthy and corrupting” habit.
Religious Tolerance vs. the Politically Closed Mind
Another example is religious tolerance. For centuries in Europe, kings and governments did not tolerate religious diversity. Those who dared to confess and practice a faith differing from that of the monarch or the political authority were threatened with imprisonment, exile, or even torture and death. It took hundreds of years and numerous religious wars before men where willing to leave religious faith, or no faith, to the conscience of each member of society.
In the liberal society that slowly evolved during the last few centuries in the West it came to be accepted that religion was a private matter and not “an affair of the state.” Debates, disputes, and even heated argument over religious matters were to be left to the free marketplace of ideas. Conversions and “crusades” for the acceptance of the “true” faith were only to be fought on the battlefield of the mind and the spirit, and not at the end of the hangman’s rope.
But now there has arisen a new political intolerance against any public demonstration for or stated disagreement with a particular religious faith. Religious views are to be locked away in the believer’s mind, and any public expression of his faith is considered somehow to be imposing that belief on others. Thus, if a private business establishment chooses to exhibit a religious symbol on its own property (and even if many of his customers desire or agree with it), it is increasingly considered grounds for legal suit and legislative prohibition.
At the same time, if the proponent of one faith declares his disagreement or disapproval of another faith this, in turn, is considered an act of religious “intolerance” that is to be regulated or legislated against as a supposed “hate crime.” Thus, in the name of religious “tolerance” governments are increasingly becoming intolerant of any individuals or private groups that express their differences and disagreements with other belief systems in that marketplace of ideas. A new form of religious censorship is being imposed on people of every faith.
The New Religious Intolerance vs. the Marketplace of Ideas
The most recent publicized instance of this new intolerance has been the firestorm of controversy that followed publication of the Danish newspaper cartoons, which portrayed Mohammed in an unflattering light. When some foreign governments and domestic pressure groups called for the censorship and punishment of those who published the cartoons, the liberal reply should have been that law and politics have not place in this matter. One might question and even personally challenge the good manners or polite taste of those who published them, but this is all part of the peaceful rivalry of ideas in which both the vulgar and the refined compete for the attention and acceptance of the reading and thinking public.
When I was a small boy I was taught that when someone said something rude or insulting to me the appropriate response was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Now, of course, words can and do hurt, and precisely because of this decent men in a free society should show a reasonable moderation in what and how they say things. And, indeed, it used to be taken as more of a demonstration of the “crudity” and “ignorance” of the speaker that he should rise no higher than the gutter in what he said and how he acted toward another.
But, instead, the intolerant, political extremist wishes to ban what he considers the religiously “insensitive” and what he labels “word harms” and therefore crimes. Does this settle disputes among men about matters of religious faith (or any other idea or belief)? No, this new political extremist intolerance for private religious expressions of faith and differences of views in the public arena threatens to potentially make social tensions even worse over this issues.
It makes people fearful of speaking their minds, forces them into a public hypocrisy, and allows differences and disagreements to fester below the surface. And by driving men’s thoughts “underground” it generates a “black market” place of ideas where the truly corrupt, vile, and dangerous can grow and mutate precisely because they are not challenged in the bright light of open and public discourse and debate.
The advocate of freedom, with his deep belief in the sanctity and uniqueness of the individual, has always been repelled by the idea of condemning or punishing people because of the values or beliefs that they may hold but which they do not attempt to forcibly impose on others.
The friend of liberty has believed that all ideas should be treated with respect and can only be discussed and challenged on the basis of reason and evidence. Attempts to politically discriminate against or ban open and free discussion of any ideas are the only things that should to be viewed as unreasonable and intolerable in the free society.
Liberty and a Society of True Tolerance
The free society tries to avoid extremes through the diversity of free men that it
both permits and fosters. It restrains the practice of “extreme” personal behavior because it imposes costs and consequences upon everyone who practices them — loss of economic opportunity, and social ostracism by those who are repelled by it. And it teaches the advantages of moderation — courtesy, good manners, tolerance and “socially acceptable” conduct – in the competitive arena of intellectual pluralism where to win an argument the only medium of exchange is peaceful persuasion.
In other words, the free society nudges men toward better behavior and rational thought rather than tries to compel it. It teaches good and tolerant conduct through reason and example. It fosters compromise by demonstrating the personal costs of being too extreme in one’s words and actions. And it raises the ethical conduct of society by the discovered advantages of personal improvement through time.
Are the arguments for and the advocates of liberty too extreme? Quite to the contrary. Freedom is the epitome of moderation. And it is freedom’s moderation, its tolerance and diversity that drive some men mad. But madness, by definition, is not the normal condition of a healthy human being. The history of Western civilization is the story of man’s slow escape from the madness of political and social extremism. Our dilemma and our challenge is that this sickness still controls the minds of too many of our fellow citizens, and is the guiding principle of those who use political power to get their way.
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