Free Societies

The joy of freedom

Joy of freedom
Tom G Palmer

Tom G. Palmer | Executive Vice President for International Programs

The following has been adapted for print from the opening address to the Festival of Liberty (El Festival de la Libertad) in Madrid this past summer. The event was hosted by Atlas Network partner Instituto Juan de Mariana in collaboration with New Direction. 'The Joy of Freedom' was featured in Atlas Network's Freedom's Champion quarterly magazine in Fall 2018.

It is a joy to take part in a festival of liberty, a truly liberal event. “Festival” is really the right word, because liberty is truly something to be celebrated, its realization a cause for joy and an occasion for happiness. And the occasion for happiness is not merely our own freedom, but the freedom of other people as well. Contrary to the mischaracterizations of Marxist and fascist ideologues, who willfully misstate classical liberal ideas, liberty is not a solitary condition, but a condition of equal freedom that we enjoy with others under the rule of law.

Karl Marx, in his notorious anti-Semitic essay “On the Jewish Question,” mischaracterized liberalism as “the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself.” He and his followers waved away classical liberal arguments for legal equality as having “no political significance. It is only the equal right of liberty as defined above; namely that every man is equally regarded as a self-sufficient monad.” Unsurprisingly, Marx called for making such individuals “impossible.” He dismissed with contempt the individual. “… by ‘individual’ you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.” Collectivists inspired by illiberal ideologies proceeded to make millions of people “impossible,” as we know all too well. In place of society, they substituted power and violence.

A society of liberty is not a collection of monads, contrary to the ideologies of the far left and far right, but an interlocking network of networks of human relationships governed, not by violence, but by rules. For, in the formulation of Immanuel Kant, justice is “the sum total of those conditions within which the will of one person can be reconciled with the will of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom.” John Locke, another deep thinker about liberty, connected law and freedom very directly. In his Second Treatise of Government, he argued that “where there is no Law, there is no Freedom.” For a human being to be free means “not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own.”

To be equal before the law and not to be subject to arbitrary power — that is our right as moral beings and, as it is our right, it is our demand. We do not request rights and liberty; we demand them and we fight for them, and we do so not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and our fellow human beings. We stand with the Polish freedom fighters of the November uprising of 1831, who fought “Za naszą i waszą wolność” (for our freedom and yours). They did not hate the Russians, but were fighting against tyranny, for freedom for Poles, and freedom for Russians. The spirit of liberty is a spirit of solidarity, for unlike all the various collectivisms, which posit conflicts based on group identities, liberty can exist for each and every one, for each and every one of us has a unique identity. There is no quantum of liberty, no fixed amount, such that if you have more, I must have less. Liberty is coordinate with equality, with justice, and with peace, for what we seek is equal liberty — under abstract rules that do not discriminate among persons — and that makes it possible for us to live in peace, each following his or her own plan of life, neither oppressing nor being oppressed.

And what a world liberty has made possible! A world of increasing prosperity, of rising dignity, of health, education, and art, of wonders that previous generations would never have imagined, much less aspired to. The poorest citizens of European countries have comforts no king or queen of old could have imagined. And every day more people around the world move from poverty to prosperity. Freedom under the rule of law — liberty — creates prosperity, as the Chinese sage Lao Tzu recognized. He identified social order and prosperity with wu wei, “active inactivity,” government that sets rules without intervening, directing, commanding. Wu wei is not mere inactivity, but the activity of setting the rules and then letting order emerge as a result of the free actions of the people. As he wrote:

“The more prohibitions there are,

The poorer the people will be.

The more edicts are promulgated,

The more thieves and bandits there will be.

Therefore a sage has said:

So long as I ‘do nothing’ the people will of themselves be transformed.

So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight.

So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves become prosperous.”

Liberty is not the exclusive inheritance of one people, one nation, or one continent. It is the right of all humanity. Good ideas do not come with little flags. Euclid was Greek, but who would think of calling geometry “Greek?” Lavoisier was French, but it would be bizarre to call chemistry “French.” Steel production was pioneered in ancient China, but who would think that steel could only be used by Chinese people? Liberty, like all ideas, has its histories, heroes, and stories, but we know that it works, that it makes life better, and that it provides the best conditions for human flourishing. It is in accord with human nature. It is the right of everyone. It is the fundamental human right.

I travel frequently in Asia, Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas. In just my lifetime, I have seen the greatest poverty eradication in all of human history, as billions of people have left behind dire poverty. Not only have the percentage of humans living in poverty fallen, but, even as human population has grown, the absolute number of those in poverty has fallen. In 1990, 35 percent of the human race lived in poverty — 1.85 billion people. By 2013 that had fallen to 10.7 percent, down to 767 million people. And the percentages and the numbers will continue to fall, if the institutions and principles that produce such prosperity are maintained. But doing that will take work. Our work.

We so easily take liberty for granted. We travel from place to place, speak without fear of arrest, choose our professions and our employment, attend the places of worship we choose, marry according to mutual consent, buy and sell at prices we agree to, and in general, we live our own lives without fear. And most of us rarely think about liberty when we do so. After all, liberty is what makes all of those free choices possible, but when we do those things, we are working, living, speaking, praying, traveling, buying, and selling. But we are not “liberty-ing.” Liberty is the condition and not the activity. We are normally focused on what we are doing without giving a thought to the conditions that makes our actions possible — in the case of liberty, to live according to our own choices without fear of the power of other people, just as we breathe without thinking much about the oxygen that makes it possible. Fish, it seems, do not think much about water, either.

But there is an important difference between us and fish. We have conceptual abilities that fish do not have, at least as far as we know. We can think about the future and make plans. We do not have to wait for air to be in shortage for us to think about it. We can imagine being without air, so when we go scuba diving, we plan ahead and bring air tanks. Liberty grabs our attention most when it is lacking, but we can plan ahead for liberty, too. We can appreciate how important liberty is, not only when we lack it, but even when we have it. Not only can we, but we must if we are to keep our liberty.

Ronald Reagan put the matter clearly.

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same …”

Liberty is always at risk, because the human heart harbors not only the desire for freedom, but for many there is also the desire for power, to dominate and to despoil others. And, of course, to do so politically via violence organized through the state, which represents the perversion of law into the most brutal form of lawlessness. We must fight against the perversion of law and for limited government, for security of rights, for the freedom to trade, and as the overarching principle, for the presumption of liberty and against the presumption of power, for the principle of rightful freedom and against mere permission dispensed to us by power.

I said earlier that liberty is not a solitary condition, but a condition of equal freedom that we enjoy with others under the rule of law. The importance of freedom was eloquently stated by a man who dedicated his life to realizing liberty through the eradication of slavery in his native country of Brazil. Brazilian diplomat, historian, and abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco exhorted us in his memoir of the struggle to abolish slavery, to love the freedom of other people.

“Educate your children, educate yourselves, in the love for the liberty of others, for only in this way will your own liberty not be a gratuitous gift from fate. You will be aware of its worth and will have the courage to defend it.”

Let us dedicate ourselves to defending our liberty and to doing so with the strength and the courage that comes from loving also the liberty of others. Look to those around you; think of your families, of your neighbors, and of your colleagues and friends. Then think of those who cannot be with us, who live under oppression and tyranny, who experience daily the power of one-party dictatorships and relentless state surveillance, who are arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and murdered in the name of the people, the party, and the state. Let us think of our own posterity, of those who will come after us, who — if we do not do our work — will not know the freedom that is their birthright. Let us join together to dedicate ourselves to our freedom and theirs.