Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Why Freedom Doesn’t Sell Well
by Tibor R. Machan

At a conference I attended with many friends of the free society hours on end were spent on discussing why freedom doesn’t manage to catch on better—why so many people refuse to embrace the idea of a fully free society. Several famous luminaries, including the Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, lamented this fact. Dr. Friedman even suggested that his famous book, Capitalism and Freedom, published back in 1962, was something of a failure because it didn’t manage to move the country more rapidly toward scaling down government and increasing individual liberty or expanding the scope of the private sector. That is what winning the fight for liberty would come to, in practical terms, even if in the intellectual realm the fight has been largely successful (especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the embarrassing records of such countries as North Korea and Cuba, or even Germany and France, as far as enabling people to flourish in their lives).

In one session there was a lot of consternation about making the case for freedom more solid by showing more clearly how efficient freedom is, how much more one can achieve of what one wants when one is free, compared to when one is partially—and especially completely—regimented by governments. And here is where the problem seems to lie, as far as I understand the situation.

First of all, even if one were to deploy the most outstanding arguments and demonstrations to show that freedom is superior to its more or less Draconian alternatives, this will never guarantee victory. Even the famous eternal vigilance, paid as its price, will not make freedom triumph if people do not want it. And they may not want it for many reasons, even when upon considering the case for it they cannot come up with sound objections. Human beings do not always choose what is best for them—no one can reasonably deny this when we look around and see so many making a mess of their lives when they certainly do not have to do so. Given the likelihood that many folks are not at their best, including when it comes to thinking and acting with regard to their political situations, this should not be terribly surprising. So, it is clear that even when the case for liberty is a very solid one, that doesn’t mean everyone will make the effort to help establish a regime of freedom instead of one of more-or-less tyranny. There simply are too many people who want to take shortcuts, refuse to take responsibility for their own conduct and believe they can get away with this—and sadly often do—by calling upon the government to force others to shoulder burdens they ought to assume.

Second, is the most widely circulated case for liberty as good as we can get? That case is mostly put in terms of how effective a free society is, how efficient its institutions are to get people what they want out of life, especially prosperity. The problem is, however, that while this point is well supported, it doesn’t manage to clinch it for liberty.

Liberty is, after all, a condition that people can use for good or for ill. And even when they use it for good, if they cannot show that it is for good they are using it, they will often he defenseless against critics who chide them. Just consider how many people and organizations chide us all for being prosperous, for striving to do well in life. Unless wanting to do well in life is itself defended, shown to be a superior objective, the fact that liberty enhances this goal just will not make it evident enough that liberty is of great merit.

In the end, liberty needs a moral defense. It needs to be shown not only that individual freedom makes it possible to attain what we want, including our economic prosperity. First, it needs to be stressed that individual human beings require a decisive role in their own lives, whatever the results. Second, it is vital to demonstrate that the goal of flourishing, the pursuit of one’s own happiness—including economic success—is a good, worthy cause.

Yes, it is, but many, many people deny this and the mere efficiency of liberty doesn’t counter their objections and doubts.
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