On Securing Liberty
Those who have spent some time defending a free society against opponents and skeptics must not underestimate the difficulty of their task. Liberty is not a self-evident value to everyone. While we might want people to grasp the worth of political freedom, the absence of coercion, and the numerous implications of these without difficulty, in fact the understanding of political and economic theory takes effort.
Yet, as a number of libertarian theorists have observed, it is not always profitable and advisable to concentrate on gaining converts. Opponents of freedom are rarely if ever simply ignorant. To fail to realize this would be to believe that evil in the world is accidental. Very often those who oppose liberty are doing so because they evade their responsibility of thinking through the implications of what they know about human beings. It is no secret that free men work harder than slaves. It is not hidden from us that a climate of relative freedom in the United States produces, through the activities of relatively free people, a life for most citizens which, all things considered, is both qualitatively and quantitatively superior to the lives of most people outside our borders. Neither is it difficult to see that increasing intervention in the private economic, moral, and intellectual lives of the citizens of the U.S. by their government is leading toward overall worsening conditions throughout the culture. Thus, the failure to draw the implications in favor of freedom and in opposition to slavery cannot be due entirely to innocent ignorance.
Yet opposition to freedom will frequently be presented in the form of eloquent and sophisticated objections and questions. The minds of those who fear self-responsibility are not impaired; they are not naturally inferior creatures. Those who embark upon the control of their fellows' lives have every bit the intellectual capacity of those who recognize that human freedom is of the utmost worth. Underestimating the capacities of one's intellectual and political adversaries is, therefore, no less consequential than expecting to succeed in baseball or golf by believing that one's opponent is (physically) inferior.
I have always preferred treating opponents to liberty as if their objections and questions were motivated by ignorance alone. This is often time consuming, admittedly; on those occasions one must be judicious and decide thoughtfully when the evidence shows that the opposition is not really for lack of full understanding, agreement, or knowledge. Having decided this, it is often advisable to depart. (Needless to say, as someone who is both intellectually and, consequently, morally committed to political liberty, I can understand that the urge to "score points" against stubborn adversaries is powerful. To forego leaving the impression on an opponent of liberty that one has won is difficult but often necessary.)
For example, in defense of military conscription, zoning, or other coercive activities of government, some socialists have claimed that, since we are economically interdependent, we have obligations to "society" which we have not assumed voluntarily. Not long ago, the British government drew the logical conclusion from this and instituted measures against scientists who wanted to participate in the "brain drain." The government and its defenders argued that these scientists had no right to leave the country since their skills and existence hinged on what their "society" had done for them. Apparently, few of these people considered that Communist Hungary and the other countries of the Soviet bloc use the same argument to justify the shooting down of people who attempt to leave without the explicit permission of the government.
When defenders of liberty object to increasing demands of government upon the lives, incomes, and properties of American citizens, the response based on social indebtedness seems, at first, innocent. Since not many people understand the difference between economic interdependence, based on the fact of a well developed division of labor, and social dependence, based on certain confused theories concerning what each man owes to "society," the presumption of innocence is justified. Yet, often it becomes evident that this argument, as many others, serves a desperate effort to concoct yet another rationalization for many people's tolerance of the absence of political and economic freedom. Clearly, interdependence means that each economically active member of society contributes a great deal to the well being and derives much benefit from the productive activities of others. The process may be summed up as the widespread trading of values. It is not accurately characterized when viewed as an instance of dependence analogous to the dependence of a child on its parent or a patient upon his nurse. The picture is captured better by employing the model of the choir where, in order to produce the desired result, a beautiful sound, each member adds his or her effort. But, if one decides not to contribute, he is also willing to forego the benefits. No onesided dependence or duty enters the picture.
Yet, after theoretical discussions, many historical examples of the use of such arguments to excuse atrocities, and numerous helpful analogies, many defenders of coercion still insist on the claim that the individual owes his life to the collective under the direction of the mighty state. Under such circumstances the patience that we, as advocates, owe to people who desire honest communication is not warranted.
Each human being has, I believe, the responsibility to take certain steps to secure for himself optimal political and legal conditions and to the best of his capacity, therefore, to understand such matters. Thus learning about and discussing politics is not a mere parlor game but a genuine human need. Hard times—when liberty is in danger—warrant, I think, extra attention to man's political needs. The considered and courteous advocacy of liberty is, under such circumstances, our moral responsibility (to the best of our ability and judgment).
But as with everything else, the free market should give us the guideline to how we can best profit in communication. The dogmatism of those who refuse to recognize the moral worth of political freedom may at times be so entrenched that one can fulfill his self-responsibility of promoting the free society by leaving certain people alone; even at the risk of being considered less than charitable by them.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "On Securing Liberty".