When you hear the word "liberty" today, you might think of romantic paintings of colonial heroes replete with white stallions, waving flags and tricorn hats. Or, you might think of an eloquent speech by your favorite visionary. Or, you might think of the gun-obsessed paranoid living in some backwater. Most importantly, you are probably thoroughly convinced that you are free, that you have liberty.
Today, liberty is more of an abstraction, an obsession of a few complainers for whom nothing will ever be good enough. Today, the only people agitating about liberty are the grumbling misers who don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes along with everybody else or who want to maintain a private collection of dangerous military weapons with no conceivable use of social value. After all, haven’t we achieved equal rights for almost every imaginable social group? Sure, there remains more work to be done, but blacks are no longer openly and formally oppressed, women are paid a far larger percentage of men’s income – still not parity, but a lot better than a hundred years ago – and homosexuality is no longer illegal, or even categorized as a mental illness. So, what are these supporters of Ron Paul, these scary-looking libertarians, complaining about?
But is liberty really an abstract ideal? Sure, we can define a free society as one which follows the non-aggression principle or a hundred other equivalent, theoretical definitions. But freedom is something much more palpable than this. Freedom is hunting, fishing, dancing, drinking, reading, speaking, laughing, worshipping and painting. It is watching your favorite team sport on a Sunday afternoon. It is starting that used book store on the beach you’d always dreamed of, or buying that Mustang you wanted since you were in high school. It is volunteering at the homeless shelter and sharing your faith, getting an education and sharing your ideas with a new generation, or conceiving a child. Every one of these ordinary activities – and many more – has been prohibited at some time and place in human history. Millions of people have been slaughtered for engaging in them, or even on the suspicion of engaging in them.
In America, we believe that we have liberty but do we? It is undeniable that, in the United States, we are in many respects free and were even freer in the past. But we are not truly free. We do not have true liberty because we still tolerate state injustice and slavery. On the face of it, this is an extreme statement. The land of the free and home of the brave is ruled by a state whose democratic populace tolerates injustice and slavery? Be reasonable, you say, this is ludicrous. But is it? We tolerate state injustice because we have allowed the state to monopolize the courts, so that the state is the judge even in conflicts to which it is party. This is a conflict of interest, which is to say, it is unjust. We tolerate state slavery because we have granted the state the power to take some of everyone’s property. How much property the state will take is decided by the state itself so that, in principle, the state owns all our property. We have use of our own property only by the good graces and dispensation of the state. Without property, we cannot live, because food is property. If I do not own outright the labor I do with my body, which I use to sustain my body, then I do not own my body at all since I will perish without sustenance. What is slavery but not owning your own body? We have ended overt, chattel slavery in the West, but we continue to tolerate covert, in principle slavery.
In the United States, we have gone through a period which some term the Cultural Revolution. When you think of the Cultural Revolution, you might think of the 1960’s, protestors, hippies, potheads and deadheads. The watchword which we inherited from this revolution is tolerance. We should tolerate the lifestyles of others, even if we disagree with them. Tolerance is crucial to liberty because, without tolerance, there cannot be liberty. It is easy to sweetly serenade Liberty when you are speaking of the liberties which you cherish. The hunter speaks of the right to hunt, the clergyman of the freedom to worship God and the atheist of the freedom from state molestation in affairs of religion. But it is something else entirely to sing the praises of liberties for which you have no use. Like the woman you eloped with after a night of heated romance, you wish to annul your union with Liberty as bitterly as you pined for her once you discover her repugnant side. It is one thing to praise the liberty to own a firearm, it is quite another to praise the liberty of two men to sleep together. It is one thing to work for the liberty of women to be fairly treated in a court of law and protected from spousal abuse like any other human being, but it is quite another to work for the liberty of an individual to hoard money and be miserly, or own and operate an international corporation.
We do not have liberty because we do not want liberty. We each want the side of Liberty that we find attractive but we would each rather do without Liberty altogether than accept her in all her beauty and ugliness. It is time that we learned the meaning of the phrase, tolerate liberty. Until we learn to tolerate the liberties of others, until we learn not only to respect diversity and alternative lifestyles, but also to respect the property of others, until we learn to love all of Liberty, we shall have none of her. We must tolerate liberty or remain slaves-in-principle to an unjust state.
Perhaps we have had too grandiose a vision of liberty. Liberty is not the robed goddess, like Justice, but a playful child. Liberty is so simple and childlike. Liberty is nothing more than doing the things that you want to do and allowing others the same dispensation. Like dancing in a crowded night club, however, toes will get stepped on by accident, and sometimes fights might break out. But when the majority of dancers respect the personal space of others around them, they each become free to dance however they like and the more, the merrier. There cannot be liberty without mutual respect of each other’s persons and property. Every student of liberty should have as his or her first priority to spread the gospel of an uncompromising commitment to property and tolerance. Until social values shift in this direction, we will not have liberty.
Maybe people don’t want liberty, you object. How do we know that people want liberty, in the first place? People want liberty because liberty is one and the same as the fundamental desire to get pleasure and avoid pain. Liberty is driven by hedonism. I am using the term “hedonism” in its widest possible sense – even the ascetic chooses his lifestyle of self-abuse because that is more pleasing to him than enjoying sensual pleasures. Each person in the world seeks what pleases him. Each person in the world pursues his own goals, which is his pleasure in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Pleasure is the only reason anyone ever wanted liberty. Hedonism should not be confused, as it often is, with gluttony. God created us with a healthy desire for pleasure and a healthy aversion to pain. The pain of hunger and the pleasure of eating impel us from birth to take in sustenance and live. This principle of seeking what we desire and avoiding what we dislike is the drive that agitates for liberty. Without it, our children would not survive past infancy and the human race would die off.
Liberty has many enemies. Of course, no enemy of liberty ever says, “I’m an enemy of liberty!” just like the foreign spy never says, “I’m a foreign spy!” But the moral fascists, the statists and the corporatists who pervade society have replaced the old guard of monarchs, nobles and dragoons as the new enemies of liberty.
A common rationalization given by moral fascists for oppressing the liberties of others is a failure to see what purpose or good respecting the liberty of others serves. The person who falls asleep at the movies wonders what good actors do society. The person who is repulsed by professional sports wonders what good sports stars do society. But acting and sports are no more frivolous from an objective point of view than any other human activity. If you are a devout, fundamental Christian, do you think there is any more gravity to the Hindu’s worship of Ganesh than a game of checkers? I assure you, the Hindu feels the same about your taking of the Lord’s Supper. If you dismiss his liberty to worship as not deserving protection from state coercion and he likewise dismisses your worship, who will be able to worship according to their own conscience? Only those who hold the reigns of power or grovel to them will worship according to their conscience.
It does not matter to the principle of liberty whose worship in fact pleases God more. What matters is that we each respect the pleasure of one another. If it pleases you to worship Lord Ganesh then, by all means, do so. I will not pretend to like or be interested in your religion. I will not treat your religious beliefs as if they are equally valid with my own. But you will have my blessing and wishes of peace upon you. If it pleases you to play a game of checkers, or pray the Rosary, or watch a movie or sports, or sleep with someone of the same sex then, by all means do so, without fear of reprisal, aggression or coercion from me. You have my best wishes and assurances of peace, whether or not I agree with your behavior, or would participate in it myself. In short, I value all liberties, even those for which I have no use or which I find disgusting, repulsive, heretical or immoral.
The moral fascists who seek to use state power and aggression to enforce their own sensibilities about what behaviors comprise legitimate liberties and what behaviors do not must be renounced as the enemies not only of tolerance, but of liberty. God has endowed us, Bastiat says, with a “providential social psychology” so that human society may “develop harmoniously in the open air of liberty.” We do not need to arm our clergy to have just and moral society. Men of the cloth who seek the power of coercion have renounced liberty and, if they are Christians, have likely renounced their faith.
The power brokers seek to destroy liberty by keeping it in the realm of abstract ideals. So long as liberty remains a utopian idealization, society will identify the lack of oppression of specific behaviors here and now relative to other times and places as liberty. They must manufacture every kind of substitute for liberty imaginable. Democracy, they say, is liberty. But liberty is not the product of any form of government. It is simply individuals doing what they want to do. Liberty is not an export, as the Bush administration has sought to make it. Only a grandiose, abstract ideal – like democracy – could be exported by a government to a foreign country, like poor Iraq. Liberty is only exported by example. Pursue your dreams as you see fit and leave your neighbor alone to do likewise. That is the sum of liberty. The Iraqis know that liberty requires nothing more than a soccer ball and an open field.
The corporatists tell us that the American dream, defined by its uniquely chrome-plated flavor of materialism, is liberty. We are each free to have our piece of the pie, our slice of the American dream. One day, when you have labored your life away, you too can hope to have a house of your own, two cars and plane tickets to a Florida resort. Then, you will have liberty. But for now, keep your head down, work hard, and trust that the Year-To-Date SSI column of your pay stub is going into a “lock-box” and your piece of the American dream will be secured once you have given up the best years of your life to your employer and your government.
Democracy is not liberty. It’s just another excuse for state parasitism and plunder of the productive class. The American dream is not liberty. It’s a carrot on a stick. The power brokers sell us these cheap, saccharine substitutes for Liberty to keep us distracted while they quietly strangle her to death.
Who are these enemies of liberty? How could anyone be so anti-humanist in this enlightened age as to oppose liberty? We often speak of the opponents of liberty as if they were the faceless boogey-men of comic books, sociopaths, hell-bent on inflicting pain and misery on others for no particular reason. But they are no fiction, and they are motivated by the principles of human action which Smith, Bastiat, Mises, Rothbard and others have clearly explained.
We each seek to have pleasure and avoid pain. Since working for a living entails pain (that is, it is undesirable), each man seeks to push the pain of work onto others. There is only one way to avoid the pain of work, and that is to rob others of the work they have done by consuming the fruits of their labor. Of course, no one wants to be robbed of their labor, so the parasitic class must find a way to legitimize it. The state is the mechanism by which robbery and plunder is legitimized.
For the parasitic class, liberty in itself is not the enemy. Sure, there are sick individuals with power who want to control every detail of everyone’s lives so they can play God but these psychopaths do not constitute the majority of those who oppose liberty and a free society. Rather, the majority of the parasitic class oppose property rights. It is property rights that are the enemy because property rights are the opposite of legal plunder. Without legal plunder, the parasitic class is culled of politicians, corporatists and the unproductive masses and reduced to beggars, purse-snatchers and burglars. If no one owns my body and the fruits of its labor but me, then no justification can be offered for taking it from me involuntarily without also incidentally morally justifying slavery. Property is a precondition to liberty. So, those who oppose property rights incidentally oppose liberty and espouse slavery.
Many of the corporatists – those who have amassed wealth through private enterprise –also oppose liberty. They want stifling regulations on their industries and stringent protections for consumers. The stated motivation of these regulations and protections is always the desire of the corporation to be a “good citizen” and promote “community spirit” and other such nonsensical drivel. The real purpose, we know, is to restrict competition. What could be more logical? The major players in any industry would prefer to take a modest hit in profits but secure safety from competition through regulations that make entry into the industry prohibitively expensive for newcomers. So it is that the biggest beneficiaries of free trade – liberty – become its greatest enemies. They love Liberty when she favors them, but cannot stand the sight of her once they learn that she has no partiality and does not regard birth, title, rank or net worth.
The statist, the corporatist and the moral fascist alike cannot tolerate liberty. They cannot tolerate liberty because liberty is just and liberty presupposes property. Justice and property are enemies to the parasites whether they wear a hood and sag their pants or wear snappy uniforms, badges and guns. The only enemies of liberty ought to be criminals because only a criminal has a good reason to hate liberty. Only those who seek to live at the expense of others through the use of coercive force have a good reason to hate liberty. All other people naturally desire the liberty to live their life as they see fit.
Libertarians have taught liberty, but not always with tolerance. Cultural reformists have taught tolerance, but often without liberty. We need to go back to the principles of the enlightenment espoused by Thomas Jefferson and the great, classical liberals. We need to learn to tolerate liberty.