With the beginning of 2017, what might be a “New Year’s resolution” for a friend of freedom? One answer is for each of us to do our best to become “lights of liberty” that will attract others to the cause of freedom and the free society.
For five years, from 2003 to 2008, I had the opportunity and privilege to serve as the president of the Foundation for Economic Education. FEE, as it is also called, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read, with the precise goal of advancing an understanding of, and the arguments for, individual freedom, free markets, and constitutionally limited government.
One of the reasons that I accepted the position as president was that FEE had been influential in my own intellectual development in appreciating the meaning and importance of liberty from the time that I was a teenager, both through the pages of its monthly magazine, The Freeman and the books that it published and distributed at heavily discounted prices.
I wanted to assist in continuing the work that Leonard Read had begun at FEE, especially among the young whose ideas and actions would greatly influence the chances for liberty in the decades to come.
Self-Improvement Advances Liberty
In fact, it is now a bit more than forty years ago, in June 1974 when I was in my mid-20s, that I first attended a weeklong FEE summer seminar at its then headquarters in a spacious and charming mansion building in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
here were many impressive speakers at the seminar that week, including the famous free-market journalist, Henry Hazlitt, and the riveting Austrian School economist, Hans Sennholz.
But I must confess that I only recall the content of one of the lectures that week, delivered by Leonard Read, himself. He pointed out that many of us wish we could change the world in ways that we consider to be for the better. But changing the world can only happen through changes in the attitudes, ideas, and actions of the individual members of any society.
He asked, out of all the people in the world, over whom do you have the most influence? The answer, he said, is, obviously, yourself. Therefore, changing the world begins with improving one’s own understanding and ability to explain and persuasively articulate the case for freedom and free markets.
At one point in his talk, he asked that the lights be turned off in the classroom. In the darkness he slowly started to turn up the light of an electric candle that he held in his hand, asking us to notice how all eyes were drawn to it, however dim the illumination.
As the candle brightened, he pointed out that more and more of the darkness was pushed away into the corners, enabling us to see more clearly both the objects and the people in the room.
If each of us learned more about liberty, we would become ever-brighter lights in the surrounding collectivist darkness of the society in which we lived. Our individually growing enlightenment through self-education and self-improvement would slowly but surely draw others to us who might also learn the importance of freedom.
Through this process, more and more human lights of freedom would sparkle in the dark until finally there would be enough of us to guide the way for others so that liberty would once again triumph. And collectivism would be pushed far back into the corners of society.
Anything That’s Peaceful and First Principles
Central to Read’s philosophy of freedom was a commitment to first principles as the Archimedean point from which the logic of liberty flows. As Read explained in his book Anything That’s Peaceful (1964):
I mean let anyone do anything that he pleases that’s peaceful and creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver the mail, or educate, or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful. Limit society’s agency of organized force – government – to juridical and policing functions . . . Let the government do this, and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!”]
What are the “first principles” of liberty, and what do they imply?
Each Individual’s Right to His Own Life
Firstly, and most importantly, liberty means the right of the individual to live his own life for himself. The starting axiom of freedom is that right of the individual to his life, liberty, and honestly-acquired property.
Either the individual has “ownership” over himself, or it must be presumed that the collective, the tribe, the group has the authority to dispose of his life and the fruits of his mental and physical labors.
If he does not have a right to his own life, then he is at the mercy of the wishes, whims, and coercive caprice of others who claim to speak and act with political authority in the name of “society.”
Only the individual knows what will bring happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning and purpose to his own life. If this is taken away from him, then he is a slave to the purposes and brute power of others.
Respect for the Equal Rights of All
Secondly, liberty means for each of us to respect the equal right of every other individual to his life, liberty, and honestly-acquired property. We cannot expect others to respect our own right to these things, if we do not, as a matter of principle, forswear any claim to their life and property.
To not recognize and abide by the reciprocity of respect for and defense of such individual rights is to abrogate any principle of human association other than force and plunder – the enslavement and spoliation by the intellectually manipulative and physically stronger of others in society.
On what basis or by what principle can we appeal not to be murdered, physically violated or robbed by others, if we do not declare and insist upon the right of each individual to his life, liberty and property, ours and everyone else’s, as a starting moral premise in society?
Voluntary Consent and Peaceful Agreement
Thirdly, this means that all human associations and relationships should be based on peaceful and voluntary consent and agreement. No one may be coerced or intimidated through the threat of force to act in any way other than he freely chooses to do.
Each of us only enters into those associations and exchanges from which we expect to be made better off, as we define and desire an improvement in our lives.
This does not mean that we often do not wish that the terms under which another is willing to trade with us would be more favorable to ourselves. But the fact that we may choose to exchange at some agreed terms that is minimally acceptable to ourselves as well as to the other person means that, all things considered, we anticipate that our circumstances will be better than if we passed up this trading opportunity.
The only time that it is clear that a trade or an association with others is not considered by us as a source of personal betterment is when we are forced or coerced into the relationship. Why would compulsion have to be used or threatened against us, if we did not view what we are being compelled to do to be an act or a commitment that we evaluate as making us worse rather than better off?
The Mutual Respect of Private Property
Fourthly, liberty means that each individual’s honestly-acquired property is respected as rightfully his, and may not be plundered or taxed away by others, even when majorities may think that some minority has not paid some supposed “fair share.”
What makes something the rightful property of an individual? When he has either appropriated unclaimed and previously unowned land and resources through their transformation in some manner brought about by his mental and physical labor, or when he has acquired it through peaceful and non-fraudulent trade with another in exchange for something he has to offer in the form of a desired good or his labor services at voluntarily agreed-upon terms of trade.
The use of force by either private individuals or those in political authority to seize such rightful property or compel its use or sale on terms other than those freely chosen and agreed to by its owner is, therefore, unjust and indefensible in a free society.
A Free Market of Goods and Ideas
Fifthly, liberty means respect for the free, competitive interactions of people in the marketplace of goods and ideas, out of which comes the creative and innovative energy of mind and effort that bring about rising standards of living for all in society.
The free market is the arena of human association in which each individual is at liberty to make his own choices and decisions as both producer and consumer.
Yet, as has been understood since the time of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, each individual, in his own self-interest, necessarily must apply his abilities in ways that take into consideration the circumstances and desires of others in society.
Since, in the society of liberty, no individual may acquire what he desires through murder, theft or fraud, he is left with only one avenue to obtain what others have that he wants. He must offer to those others something that he can produce or provide that those others value more highly than what they are asked to trade away to get it.
In the free market each receives in voluntary trade what they value more highly in exchange for what they value less highly. And each serves the interests of others as the means to his own end of the personal improvement of his self-defined circumstances.
Thus, the free market as a moral and starting principle eschews all forms of compelled self-sacrifice in the networks of human association.
Liberty and Limited Government
Sixthly, a society of liberty means a limited government, a government whose purpose is to protect each individual in his freedom and peaceful market and social affairs, and is not to an agency of political oppression or economic favoritism through special privileges and benefits that are given to some at the expense of others in society.
Compulsory redistribution of wealth and income, and regulatory coercions over the means and methods of production and the peaceful buying and selling of goods and services, are all inconsistent with the ideal of a society of free men and women, each secure in their individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly-acquired property.
These are not easy rules and ideals to live by, but they are what America was founded upon and made it originally great as a land of liberty – a land of both wide individual freedom and rising prosperity.
Winning Others Over to Liberty, One Person at a Time
They are, also, ideas not always easy to get others around us to understand and appreciate the way we see them. This gets us back to Leonard Read’s conception of self-improvement in our own understanding of what he called the “freedom philosophy.”
Our New Year’s resolution should be to do all that we individually can to better understand the principles of liberty, their logic, their moral rightness, and their convincing application to the political and economic issues of our day.
As we each become more enlightened and articulate spokespersons for freedom, we widen the circle of people able to persuasively draw others into that illumination of liberty. And step-by-step, one person at a time, the supporters and advocates of collectivism will be reduced and the proponents and enthusiasts for freedom will be increased.
Make it your goal, therefore, to bring at least one person over to the cause of liberty in 2017, and if we all do this we will have, at a minimum, doubled the friends of freedom in this New Year. If we repeat this same process of reasoned persuasion in 2018, that larger number can and will be doubled again. And, then, again in 2019, and 2020, and….
Through this means of peaceful persuasion the friends of freedom can become the majority in our own lifetime. All it requires is enough of us willing to try.
This piece was originally published at the Foundation for Economic Education.