"Liberty is a rare and precious thing," writes Jim Powell in his new book, The Triumph of Liberty (Free Press). Through dozens of engaging biographical sketches of figures ranging from Erasmus to Mary Wollstonecraft to Ludwig Von Mises, Powell chronicles how liberty—"freedom from fraud and coercion of every kind"—became a universally accepted (if not practiced) concept. The individuals he discusses, Powell says, "made it possible for millions of us to do what was unthinkable in ages past: enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." For his part, Powell has been thinking about liberty for a long time. In the 1960s, he served as an editor of the pathbreaking student journal New Individualist Review at the University of Chicago; more recently, he's been an editor at Laissez-Faire Books and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He spoke with Associate Editor Brian Doherty via phone.
Q: Given the 20th century's history of bloody statism, in what sense has liberty triumphed?
A: The earliest figure I write about in my book is Cicero, since he was the earliest for whom I could find reliable biographical sources. Look at his Rome: Slavery is universal, no individual rights, no trial by jury; private property was not secure (though property law was being developed). Rome relied on continuing conquest, constant war. From that perspective, we've come a long way.
Q: If liberty's advantages are so great, why is it so often fleeting?
A: Lots of people, both for reasons of idealism and reasons of self-interest, promote expanded government power, which throughout history has been the greatest single threat to liberty. We are dealing with either idealists like egalitarians, who want to do various forms of leveling, or with interest groups trying to get subsidies and the like. They combine for constant pressure to expand government power. Liberty is always under assault and there will never be a total victory. There will be terrible crises in the future, but if the past is any guide, we are likely to continue to get great heroes for the cause of liberty against power. Most of the people I write about are unlikely heroes, arising without much in the way of money or connections.
Q: Why use biographies to talk about liberty?
A: I thought readers who wouldn't pick up an abstract book might be attracted to stories. My stories aren't just about intellectuals—some figures are artists like Francisco Goya and William S. Gilbert and Beethoven, and some are men and women of action, like Samuel Adams, Martin Luther King, and Raoul Wallenberg.
You can't write about the story of liberty in general. By looking at the specific contributions of individuals, I saw that it developed along different tracks. The first big issue was religious toleration, which tied in with other things—freedom of speech, press, and private property. Religious toleration gets worked out before political toleration is worked out. Bills of rights get worked out before the franchise is worked out. Individuals make contributions to one of those areas, and you need that to have happened before another contribution can be important.