What’s wrong with liberty?

On his blog, The Pretense of Knowledge, Speedmaster points to Dr. Robert Higgs‘ acceptance speech for the Alexis de Tocqueville Award.

In it, Higgs eloquently describes the same two reasons (though only one is sufficient) why I appreciate liberty.  This is from his speech.

For one of the ways in which I have made myself obnoxious, however, I make no apology: I have forthrightly raised the banner of individual liberty again and again, even among associates and fellow citizens who esteemed other values much more than they esteemed liberty. Although few Americans openly oppose individual liberty in the abstract, it is obvious from their frequent willingness to sacrifice liberty in a quest for other goals that they do not place individual liberty very high in the rank-order of their preferences about how social life should be lived. In contrast, I unashamedly love liberty. For society as a whole, I wish nothing more fervently than I wish that it should be as free as possible. For me, freedom is not simply the highest-ranked value with regard to public affairs; it stands on a level by itself, far above all the others.

I espouse individual liberty in this “extreme” fashion for two reasons, which in my mind complement one another. The first is that freedom is the optimal condition for each individual’s engagement in society. To be driven, bullied, abused, disregarded, treated with contempt and dishonor―these are bad things in themselves, not only for me, but for every human being. We ought to recoil from them, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a local cop or the government in Washington. Yet all too many of us become accustomed to such official cruelties and take them in stride without much conscious thought that they are wrongs and ought to be stopped, regardless of their source.

Individual liberty, however, is also an instrument for the creation of many of the conditions, goods, and services that constitute material abundance and relieve many of the anxieties and pains that once accompanied social life for almost everyone. Virtually everyone favors economic development, especially inasmuch as it reduces or eliminates extreme poverty. Individual liberty is a necessary condition for sustained economic progress. The specific conditions of a free society―private property rights, secure contracts, a reliable rule of law―are prerequisites for the ongoing creation of wealth in the long run. At this late date, after we have witnessed the personal horrors and economic disasters brought about by socialist central planning, it should not be necessary to go on preaching the gospel of private property and the market economy, yet we all know that many people still do not understand these essential matters and often act politically to thwart the operation of a genuinely free society.

To summarize, liberty is good because it seems morally right and it produces the best outcomes for everyone.

It took me far too long to learn these lessons.

For me, this was the key sentence of the excerpt:

Although few Americans openly oppose individual liberty in the abstract, it is obvious from their frequent willingness to sacrifice liberty in a quest for other goals that they do not place individual liberty very high in the rank-order of their preferences about how social life should be lived.

I use to be one of these Americans.

Liberty was good, until I thought it got in the way of some desired outcome.   I’m afraid it took a good deal of life experience and thinking to overcome the reflexive reaction to get the desired outcome with waves a government wand.

It took a long time to learn that my desired outcomes maybe weren’t so desirable after all and that waving the government wand was usually not the best way to achieve better results.

And, even if my desired outcomes were desirable and we could get there with government, was it worth infringing on the liberty of others to do so?

Dr. Higgs and I might be wrong about why liberty is good. I try to keep myself open to that possibility.

I was wrong about an awful lot before I arrived at my position on liberty.  And, it took me being willing to admit I was wrong to get here.

I’ve actively sought out arguments that proved my current position wrong, but I have not encountered anything remotely persuasive yet.

So far, the arguments are the same that I held at some point previous in my life.

“Liberty prevents some desired outcome.”  “Government is required to get there.”

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5 thoughts on “What’s wrong with liberty?

  1. Pingback: Why Principles Matter « The Young Economist

  2. “Liberty was good, until I thought it got in the way of some desired outcome. I’m afraid it took a good deal of life experience and thinking to overcome the reflexive reaction to get the desired outcome with waves a government wand”. -Seth

    “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it … gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself”.
    - Milton Friedman

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