Some in the liberty movement, but especially those in New York, may remember a tall, quiet, dignified gentleman who economized on words and often preferred to solicit the opinions of others over advancing his own. His name was George M. Yeager and he will be seen no longer. He left us on December 31 of last year, after dealing patiently and stoically with a variety of ailments.
People raised in different circumstances often show different attitudes toward potential dangers. If you’ve never been near the water or learned how to swim, lakes, rivers, and oceans probably seem quite terrifying. Those who can swim generally see rivers, lakes, and oceans differently. Such different experiences may lead to different policies regarding access to water. We can forbid people to go near the water, or we can help people to acquire the habits of self-control that reduce the very real dangers posed by bodies of water — and swimming is all about self-control, rather than merely thrashing about.
When I think of examples of successful self-control and dignity under the most difficult circumstances, one person comes to mind before all others: 刘晓波, Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer and human rights activist who was sentenced on Dec. 25, 2009, to 11 years of imprisonment in China on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu’s body is in prison and he is being made to suffer deprivation of liberty, health, companionship, and more by state authorities, but he will not allow himself to be consumed by the hatred that would destroy a person with less self-control. Before being subjected to years of imprisonment and abuse, he had tried to lead a life of freedom and responsibility.
Isn’t it interesting how often government leaders use passive voice to refer to their bad decisions? “Mistakes were made,” “The intelligence was flawed,” “Things got out of control,” etc., etc. And even when they say “I take responsibility,” they almost never actually take responsibility by, say, resigning or reimbursing or even apologizing to the victims of their decisions; they just go on about their business with nary an apology or a look back. Any American politician who says “I take responsibility” is really trying to tell us all to “Move along now ... nothing to see here.”
It’s not so hard to talk about having one’s freedom taken away. “You’re under arrest” means you’re not free to go. Prisoners have had their freedom taken. When that’s done unjustly, we speak of freedom being “stolen,” because rightfully it should be yours to enjoy. But can your responsibility be stolen from you?
A frequent challenge raised against classical liberalism is that it is not suitable for Asian people or Asian countries, because of “Asian values” that are allegedly unique to Asian countries. Is Asian liberty different from European or American or African Liberty? Or, if liberty is being used in the same way in those regions, is it a reasonable principle for Asian governments and laws, or are Asian values incompatible with liberty? One could also ask whether there is one core of values that are common to all Asians, who inhabit a vast region encompassing billions of people speaking hundreds of languages, professing a wide variety of religions, and heirs to thousands of years of multifarious cultural developments.
The great British political thinker and politician Edmund Burke is frequently called a conservative, although he did not use the term for himself, preferring the term “Whig” — and “Old Whig,” at that. Those who call him a conservative often think of him as favoring a state that will use its coercive powers to control human beings, to make them behave morally. People who do not behave morally, they suggest, cannot be free, because they are constrained by their own excesses. Or, quoting Burke, “Their passions forge their fetters.”
Supply and demand analysis isn’t limited to consumer goods. There is also a supply and a demand for government. Noted economists have focused much attention on the supply of state control, with a focus on the willingness of politicians to get into power and stay there, and of bureaucrats to maximize their budgets. Some attention has been paid to the “demand side,” but not enough, and most of that has focused almost exclusively on two features: the provision of public goods and redistribution — the latter of which, in more common language, means taking stuff from some people to give it to others.
Magna Carta is celebrating its 800th birthday. This great event is significant not only for the English, or even the English-speaking nations, but for all of humanity. On this occasion, it is worth remembering some important facts about the “Great Charter of Liberties.”