On Reclaiming Liberty


There is little point in looking to the moral regeneration of either politicians or ourselves for a solution.…We shall do far better to seek a change in our effective political constitution.
—Milton Friedman, Newsweek, June 23, 1980

In a recent review of Rose and Milton Friedman's Free to Choose in the Harvard Business Review, Christine and John Hekman acknowledge agreement with the Friedmans on substance. But they pose a challenging question: though the book "suggests constitutional changes that would guarantee a free market economy by restricting the freedom of politicians to legislate in certain areas," the Friedmans fail to tell us, say the Hekmans, "how to ensure enactment of the new rules—who must pay and what is their price?"

The basic problem is, of course, not new. All would-be political reformers face what Lenin encapsulated in the famous question, "What is to be done?" Individualists differ from all varieties of statists in insisting that, whatever the solution, it must in principle be voluntary. But nothing more specific than that follows from the individualist stance itself. The goal of liberty does not tell us what to work for as a means of achieving it—constitutional reform? agency-by-agency deregulation? privatization of government services? electing liberty-minded people to office? Nor does it dictate the means of achieving such subsidiary aims—grass-roots consciousness raising? working through established parties? starting a new party? intellectual lobbying of the thinkers and movers? paying people off?

Once before a REASON editorial was addressed to this problem. In January 1972 we commented on the conclusion of a free-market economist that, in terms of time allocation, it would be more cost-effective for the professionally active population to stay away from politics than to get involved. The problem with this advice is that political decisions are thus left to the very people who would impose their will on others rather than to those who like to carry on free of coercive intervention. It is true enough, as we pointed out in 1972, that specific recommendations for political involvement are presumptuous. Yet we insisted that all rational people owe it to themselves to investigate how best, in their own individual circumstances, to keep their freedom at least a little longer, if not actually advance it.

Given the rate at which ideas can be expected to travel through a culture that has fed on opposite ideas for more than a hundred years, considerable progress has been made since 1972. Two free-market economists have received the Nobel Prize. A Harvard University philosopher has published an award-winning, impressive book arguing for libertarianism. Several others have produced academic and popular articles and books discussing various aspects of the free society. The Libertarian Party has been launched and has experienced some success. Something of a tax revolt has started, deregulation has commenced on several fronts, and free-market think tanks have been established. Much more could be cited as evidence that freedom, especially as an alternative ideal, is not in such bad shape as it was when we provided some advice on how to advance it back in 1972.

More is required, of course, yet it is not simple to specify just what. In general terms, the correct response to tyranny, however meager or massive it happens to be, is for individuals to make the personal effort to figure out how to combat it and to do so on whatever front they have the best opportunity. Some of us should try for constitutional reform, some for educational vouchers, some for privatizing public parks, some for debunking the arguments of statists, some for freeing up cities that suffer from the iron grip of rent control; some should even join government to give some decent advice to insiders who see that something is terribly wrong. These and thousands of other individualized ways are the means by which to change our society from semi-slave to free. There is no magic key that will open the doors of liberty, no formula for liberation. It is the responsibility of each of us to find suitable battlegrounds and suitable tactics.

For those who recognize the superiority of the free market, with its many benefits because of the possibility of trading for what we value, it may seem that the natural route to liberty is to pay off the beneficiaries of government intervention. Yet to think that this is the magic solution is to assume that people actually benefit more from government intervention than from a free market. Very few do, when we consider what could be available to people without such intervention. Haven't we learned from Milton Friedman and his economist peers that the free market handles problems better, in general, than governments do? Moreover, Mr. Friedman's suggested reforms clearly require more than pay-offs. Some people—many people—will have to change their minds before the liberating recommendations he makes will be instituted.

If we are to progress very far toward a restoration of the American ideal, the power of ideas must be accepted. So also, the value of presenting examples, providing historical clarifications, and in general carrying on successfully as advocates, practitioners, admirers, and students of the free society. If liberty carries a price tag, it is, as that old slogan has it, eternal vigilance.