Life in a free society would be very much like the life I now lead—with an important difference. It would not be lived under the shadow of State power that, admittedly, can snuff out freedom whenever it desires and, observably, does so with systemic regularity around the world.
Life in a free society, however, and to continue the point about the way I already live, would probably be more like life in contemporary America than like life anywhere else on earth—but again, with important qualifications. Virtually everything unattractive about life here, or anywhere, descends from or depends upon the coercive power of the State. The giant corporatism that ignores subtle, safe technologies for the bludgeon approaches of the assembly line and the discard heap is State-supported and State-subsidized, held together even at the outset by the contrivances of corporate law and the conveniences of corporate taxation. And without the garrison state, the richest grazing grounds of the corporate dinosaurs, the tender leaves of the underdeveloped world, would not be nearly so gulpable.
Without the domestic welfare state, the dispossessed and the discarded would be forced to act on their own behalf rather than inadvertently serving as a buffer between hopes of change and the determined status quo of the State and its major partners in the banks and megacorporations.
WHAT AMERICA HAS NOW
To expand on the point about America: We already have vastly more social and economic space here than anywhere else on earth. The entire exercise of which this essay is part would be unthinkable in many political jurisdictions on this earth. That, however, is a minor point. Free speech has always seemed to me to be one of the least impressive freedoms. It can, after all, be simply the freedom to hold and express opinions.
The ability to act is what seems crucial to me in human freedom. There is more freedom to act here than in most parts of the world.
First, there is physical space. We live on a comparatively empty landscape, with most of us bunched up along the coasts and in just a few central corridors.
Second, there is cultural space. We are a varied bunch. Our regions are wonderfully balkan in their differences. Television has mounted a major attempt to obliterate them, but, the very differences seem to co-opt TV as much as it is the other way around.
Public schooling was specifically designed to destroy those differences and came terribly close to doing it until it, itself, began to collapse into the wreckage of progressivism. The good sense of Americans is heroically, if slowly, beginning to reject that foul progressivist notion that "the purpose of public education is not to educate the intellect but to educate the emotions," a cruddy, bureaucratic version of the tatty little self-realization dodges that are today's version of the old-time snake medicine shows.
If, in fact, TV continues to decay from its own egregious lack of imagination and low opinion of Americans, and if educational professionals continue to be rebuffed by outraged taxpayer-parents, not only will important regional differences be relieved of national strain but people generally will have some new space for their own actions—space not colonized by the public schools and the private socialism of the State-licensed airways.
Thus, although I readily admit the problems, I continue to insist on the great and bright possibilities, the American possibilities. We are a varied, inventive, often idiosyncratic people. Although we may appear from time to time to worship authority—and indeed, some of us (Reaganites, orthodox liberals, National Review militarists, orthodox Marxists) do, absolutely, worship authority—it still seems safe to say that most of us are antiauthoritarian by deep cultural background.
FREEDOM IN PRACTICE
So, some of the specific points about a free society, points which already may be observed in action here and now:
A free society would (and does where parts of it exist already) find people unwilling to give up their political power to representatives. Where people organize their public life in actual town or neighborhood meetings, they demonstrate this feature. In many countercultural communities, where public life is organized around meetings, people retain power and do not give it away.
In worker-managed enterprises, there is the economic counterpart of this retained power, with decisions being shared by all affected and not delegated to authoritarian proxies. Indeed, who could be called competent to represent a free person other than the person himself or herself! Freedom achieved by giving up freedom—the freedom of so-called political efficiency—is no freedom at all but simply serfdom accepted.
The partly free society in which I live—as part of a rural community at the top of the Appalachian region—emphasizes responsibilities rather than rights or entitlements. Rights, in this community of neighbors, come from agreements. Responsibilities come from the natural world. No one has the right to eat or even live. They have the responsibility to maintain their lives and to grow or obtain food.
The partly free society in which I already live has long ago slid away from the official economy. It is called a poor region, because it has low cash incomes. It is not poor. It has a fairly rich economy, based in part upon shared or bartered goods and labor stemming from a culture of large and cooperative, and extended, families. And, unlike the official economy, the economy of such so-called underdeveloped areas is based upon actual production and real, tangible values rather than upon fiat currency and towering card houses of bank-managed debt and cartels.
The partly free society in which I already live places great value upon the artistic and the scientific, to use their grandest names, rather than upon the managerial and manipulative. Good musicians are felt to be productive and are respected. So are artisans of many sorts. People who can build and grow things, invent things, fix things, are highly respected. People who simply connive, or wheel and deal, or boss people, are seen as slickers, parasites, and pests. Individual, actual entrepreneurs, the small businessman, the builder, the handyman, are not seen as "managers" but rather as people who "work" for a living.
These are ways of looking at the world that, it seems to me, would be very important in the free society that eventually might be our planetary heritage, in all of the nestled places where we actually live.
A free society would never ask its true citizens to think of what they could do for the State. It would always challenge us to do without the State—that ancient false promise, that venerable yoke. A free society based upon the hierarchical structure of the Nation State would give people freedom, it would say. But freedom should not be given. It should be lived. Thus the abiding point about how it would be to live in a free society: It would actually be living many ways for many people—as they, in freedom, would choose to live and as they could, in nature, manage to live. All of it would be balanced against the equally rigorous freedom of all other people, with no people paying for their own freedom by enslaving someone else.
I don't think, all in all, a free society, even if universal, would be a terribly gaudy or actually surprising thing. It would be, rather, more like our peaceful dreams, enlivened by creativity but relieved of the chrome-fashion, boutique-imagery, booster-boomer hullabaloo of the neatly packaged pressure cookers that now so often pass for social habitations.
And, finally, the proper answer to what it would be like to live in a free society has to be answered by each of us. Each of us, working and discussing together with those others of us who would join in any particular part of it all actually define, by being participants, a free society. A free society is simply not a general thing. It comes in particulars. And those particulars are human action, action by individual humans, coming together in voluntaristic social arrangements.
Karl Hess, a former speechwriter for Sen. Barry Goldwater, helped put libertarianism on the map with his March 1969 Playboy article "The Death of Politics." Well-known for refusing to pay taxes, Hess now lives in rural West Virginia.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Living In Freedom".