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Statist 'Freedom' vs. Freedom from Statism

Why Libertarians even bother.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 26, 2003

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Statist 'Freedom' vs. Freedom from Statism_James Leroy Wilson-Why Libertarians even bother. Just about all Americans believe in freedom - or at least they think they do. The difference between most of them and libertarians comes down to what they mean by freedom. To libertarians, freedom means being let alone; to the mainstream, it's a list of rights, granted by and subordinate to The State.

There can be some interesting arguments among Statists as to which is our most precious freedom. To some, it is freedom of speech and its related First Amendment rights. When the government decides to destroy my house in order to build another runway for an adjacent airport and I disagree with their doing so, I am free to protest without penalty. I could hold community meetings and petition the government. I could write an op-ed in the local newspaper, and the government won't shut down the presses. I can go to any church I please and pray to any god for encouragement. And the government won't punish me. What a great country! When the government takes my house, I won't be punished for objecting any way I please, and I wish people in other countries would have these freedoms when the government comes to knock down *their* houses.

Others believe that the right to vote by secret ballot is the most precious right. So that, after losing my house, I can vote for the candidate who opposed the airport expansion - even though, as part of a legislative "deal" or compromise, he will support destroying homes in another community so that an auto plant could be built. I am free to vote for whoever I want - Democrat or Republican - and the government won't punish me. And it's good that it keeps rules more stringent for the extremist small parties, making it more difficult to get them on the ballot. Extremism is dangerous for a Democracy.

And still others believe that the writ of habeas corpus is the most precious right. The police can't detain me indefinitely; I must appear before a judge. Even if I was doing something totally dreadful like carrying a marijuana joint in my pocket, I can't be held forever. In fact, I'm innocent until proven guilty! So, unless you're an American citizen designated by the government as an "enemy combatant," the government is obligated to respect your constitutional rights. If, aside from enemy combatants, the government chose not to respect the due process of law in criminal proceedings, than our entire Constitution and system of liberty is in jeopardy.

And finally, there are those who believe that the right to keep and bear arms is the key to all freedom. After all, if the people are armed, the government isn't able to do too much to them because the people are too jealous of their liberty and can revolt. Government won't raise taxes too high, regulate our businesses or private lives, or send our young men and women to fight in useless wars of national vanity. If we the people are armed, government won't tread on us.

Advocates of these four "freedoms" assume The State first and the individual second. Freedom is assumed to be good only if it advances a "social" or "public" good. Freedom of speech and the right to vote are essential for a strong Democracy. Due process of law is essential because the Government would have no legitimacy if the people didn't believe they would be able to get a fair trial. The right to bear arms is the final "check" on our system of checks and balances in order for a stable social order to maintain itself.

Likewise, these freedoms are hardly ever seen as absolute, because they, and the individual who is said to possess them, are subordinate to society as a whole. This is why many scoff at the very idea of the right of self-defense, and at property rights and liberty of contract. If the particular freedom in question seems to advance private interests more than it advances the Public Interest, it is viewed as a potential menace to society and shouldn't be viewed as a freedom at all. Individual freedom, to the extent that it exists, is valuable only as a means to the end of a perfect and just society.

These pro-State sentiments are so well-ingrained in many people that it is often impossible to persuade them of the virtues of individualism with reason alone. A mystical attachment, a patriotic zeal, a desire to be part of something greater than oneself - in short, faith in The State - becomes part of their view of reality and is integral to the moral universe they think they inhabit. Furthermore, because their lives are defined by more than reason alone, they will dismiss the unyielding logic of the libertarian, not by refuting the logic, but by dismissing the libertarian for living in a too-narrow universe.

The deck is stacked against the fever-swampers, the libertarians like me. Most people probably aren't going to get it, and most people over several generations probably won't either. So why bother saying anything at all?

The early-20th century commentator Albert Jay Nock once was asked what shall be done, how can society be improved. I've lost the reference and exact quote, but he responded that the way to improve society is to improve it by one social unit. That is, improve yourself.

The libertarian, of course, wishes to live in a free and peaceful society. But mainly, the libertarian is now, or striving to be, a *free individual*. To achieve happiness and contentment independent of the social forces that burden him. When Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes in support of the Mexican War, he wrote that he felt freer in that cell than the people outside - who were paying their taxes in order to incarcerate a peaceful man.

This sense of freedom is "self-esteem," that is, self-respect or self-love. A person can not base his sense of happiness on general social conditions, because they will always fail to live up to one's wishes. Therefore, it is insane to base his happiness on what society thinks of him. If society is corrupt, why respect the opinion of society? And, which is more selfish - believing that other people, and the fruits of their labor, should be left alone, or believing that they should be made to behave as I want them to behave, and that their fruits be distributed in ways I wish them to? Those who would impose a social system, a utopia, on the people may be the most selfish of all, because they use other people as pawns to satisfy their own desires.

It is left to those who see through the shenanigans of politicians to educate the public. There isn't any "responsibility" or "obligation" to do so, but there is a desire. I think people would be happier and better off if they became suspicious of authority, particularly of political authority. And to realize the limits of Statism and political action. Yes, the arguments are based heavily on reason, on logic and historical fact. The libertarian can't promise in what ways the world would be better in a libertarian society, any more than it can prove conclusively what society would have been like in history if The State didn't continually commit acts of violence on its own and other State's peoples. But if conscience disallows me from taking that which belongs to another by force or fraud, conscience must also forbid me from allowing The State to do so on my behalf. I think it's a personally liberating point of view: The State may keep our bodies in chains, but it doesn't have to enslave our minds and souls unless we let it. Just as any spreading of good news ought to be pleasurable to the messenger, I take distinct pleasure in sharing the good news of libertarianism.

Social improvement through force is impossible. Only change though persuasion, of others being convinced of a more honest and happier life when it is free from the Statist religion. If freedom from the State is unlikely in our lifetime, the next best thing is more and more "social units" freed from Statism.

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