Freedom Basics – transcript

Professor Paul Cwik spoke to students attending Freedom University in Irvington, NY during the summer of 2009. This is the transcript of the lecture (without the Q&A at the end).

(These guys get turned off, right? Turn them off.

You know it’s going to ring. And then you will be embarrassed and I will make fun of you. And I will. That’s why we have name tags. We write down your names… OK.)

I have been asked to give the first lecture on Freedom Basics. A lot of stuff has been written on freedom. Freedom is a word that has been argued over, fought over for centuries, and I have been asked to cover the basics in less than an hour. So I think that I might have to skip a point or two. Maybe.

When somebody says freedom, they could mean it in a couple of different ways. “The freedom to” and “the freedom from.” So think about this. Freedom to worship God in your own way, or not at all. Freedom to write what you want in your newspaper column or blog. Freedom to pick your own friends, to gather with them as you please.

Now contrast this with the freedom from want. The freedom from hunger. The freedom from illness.

There is a fundamental difference between these concepts. But the word “freedom” is used by both sides. Both sides of the debate. And that tends to make the debate rather confusing because both sides say: “We want freedom!” As a result many on our side, the good guys, right, they sometimes use the word liberty instead. Of course you can say without losing the meaning “the liberty to worship, the liberty to write, the liberty to assemble,” but it is rather awkward to say “the liberty from want, the liberty from hunger, the liberty from illness,” it’s a clunky phrase. It really doesn’t fly. So, language is important. I don’t want to loose another word to the collectivists. We have already lost the word “liberal” to them. That’s enough. They don’t get any more words. We’re keeping liberty.

The concept of liberty or “freedom to” is rather new idea. It’s a radical departure from earlier thinking. In fact, it’s a very radical idea. Ludwig von Mises, whom you might hear a little bit about this week. He argues that the idea of liberty is distinctively western. And that it came up in the western culture.

The idea that there are rights that belong to individuals and that they come before the creation of government is the opposite of the medieval law. It’s the opposite, the reverse of the medieval law.

The concept of liberty and freedom says that each individual is unique. And therefore there is worth and value in each and every individual.

F. A. Harper in his book Liberty: A Path to its Recovery

I have props. It looks like this. I stole it off the bookshelf and I will dutifully file it on the white table and not inserting it on the shelf.

Harper states it this way: “This concept of liberty rests on the supreme dignity of the individual.”  That’s fairly important distinction. It’s a radical thing. It says people matter. And if we look back the last 5 000 years of recorded human history, who are the serfs, the peasants, the peons – the nobodies?  They were the nobodies.  They were those that were sacrificed to the means, as means to some greater end at the whim of some king or emperor.

This line of thought has evolved – changed – and we can trace it through the works of John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson, Frederic Bastiat and Lord Acton.

What these guys argue is that government is created by individuals for the protection of individual rights.  That’s why we have government. The common element and the key to their reasoning is what we call, “Methodological Individualism.”

Here’s your first big college word.  Because it’s university…it’s freedom university…so we need college-type words here.

Methodological Individualism.

I’m going to talk a bit more about this in the lecture after the dinner. But I want to just touch on it now—what it means. We are looking methodology here. Any time we see the word “-ology” or “-ological” – it means the science of.

So, the methd-ology or methodology is the science of… and our science – scientific method – is basing it on its most elemental parts. And that’s the individual. We cannot break it down any further than that.

Today we suffer from the use of collective nouns and we personify them. It’s just the way that we communicate with each other. So, someone might say today General Motors filed for bankruptcy.

Well, General Motors is not a real person. General Motors is not a real general.

General Motors does not have a brain or a heart or a soul or anything like that. What is it?

It’s a collection of people, group of individuals working together that produce cars – that produce these other things financing and such.

So, we use these sort of collective nouns. EPA regulates… the United States has invaded… General Motors filed… but there really isn’t such a thing. These are only collective nouns. We have to be careful about these.

But methodological individualism says that we have to focus on the basic unit and that’s the individual.  And we will use that much more in the next lecture on the “Praxeology: Supply and Demand”. But back to freedom…

The path from individualism to rights and a theory of a free and prosperous society has taken many forms and many shapes from many authors. So, I have identified four different approaches.

And, are these categories the best categories? No, these are just sort of categories that came to me.

The first one is the “The Natural Rights approach.” Some authors that typify it are people like Frédéric Bastiat and Murray Rothbard.

And, basically what they say is that life is given to us by God. At least Bastiat does in “The Law”. Other prop… I will use that prop again….

From this position that life is given to us by God – from this position combined with the fact that there is scarcity in the world in other words we can’t have all the stuff that we want. We don’t have enough time to do all the things that we want.

And with the fact that we do not live in isolation, we can deduce the natural rights of life, liberty and property.

Some of you might say that supposed to be “the pursuit of happiness.”

Well, where do we find that actually: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? –Declaration of Independence. Who wrote that?

Well, it was a committee. It was a committee. Jefferson was the primary author and he originally had “life, liberty and property”.  Took it right out of John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government”.

They said: “People are going to pick up guns and fight the biggest war machine ever known on this planet – at that point in time … For life, liberty and property… we have to flower this up—get people’s passions going. So, they put in “the pursuit of happiness.” That’s what happened.

More on the natural law rights theory in just a little bit.

“The Utilitarian Approach”.

The utilitarian approach is basically following the idea of utility (and we talk a bit more about that in the next lecture). But it’s a level of happiness. It’s weighting plusses versus minuses and the more utility you have the happier you are.

So, the utilitarian idea says that freedom is better because we are rich; we are more wealthy; we are more prosperous; we have a higher standard of living; our utility is higher. This approach can be typified by the writings of Jeremy Bentham.

There is a lot of danger with this approach – at least I think there is – because if anyone supposes that another way, say communism, can produce more wealth, then freedom and liberty can be just tossed overboard.

So, I’m not a big fan of that. But I do think that freedom leads to higher levels of prosperity. Look at North and South Korea. Look at Hong Kong vs. Mainland China before they opened themselves up to trade. East and West-Germany…Example after example after example we see that freedom works.

The next approach is “the Objectivist approach”.

And this is characterized by the writings of Ayn Rand.

Now, what she does – she begins with the individual, methodological individualism, because only individuals have minds, again no collective nouns.

Since each individual is solely united with his own mind, there is no separation or divorcing of one’s own mind with his person.  Each person thus has full ownership over themselves.

The implication is that all individuals are on the same plane as, or on the same level as, or on par with each other in their own self-ownership. So, you own yourself, I own me, we all own ourselves.

As such, no one person for any reason can make any claim over another for any reason.

The concept of rights flows from this idea of self-ownership and follows closely with the Natural Rights approach.  It does so without the reference to God.  She was an atheist.

And, the last approach that I just put up here is “The Societal approach”.

We see this in the writings of William Graham Sumner: “What Social Classes Owe To Each Other” and the “The Forgotten Man” as two principal works he wrote.

Sorry, no props for this.  I have no book.

What Sumner said in his book “What Social Classes Owe To Each Other” blends a bit of the utilitarian and empirical with the notion of prior rights to show that there are rules for society that work and other rules that just don’t.  He was a pioneer in the field of sociology.  He argues that a society based on contract is the strongest form of society.

Here’s an example what Sumner has to say.

Sumner says: “In our modern state, and in the United States more than anywhere else, the social structure is based upon contract, and status is of” – and status like who are your parents… are you royalty or anything like that is of  – “the least importance. Contract, however, is rational—even rationalistic.  It is also realistic, cold, and matter-of-fact.  A contract relation is based on a sufficient reason, not on custom or prescription…A society based on contract is a society of free and independent men, who form ties without favor or obligation, and cooperate without cringing or intrigue.”

I mean people will gladly become garbage men or work on a cleaning staff if you pay them enough.

Sumner continues: “A society based on contract, therefore, gives the utmost room and chance for individual development, and for all the self-reliance and dignity of a free man. That a society of free men, cooperating under contract, is by far the strongest society which has ever yet existed; that no such society has ever yet developed the full measure of strength of which it is capable; and that the only social improvements which are now conceivable lie in the direction of more complete realization of a society of free men united by contract, are points which cannot be controverted.”

So, Sumner is saying, “Look, you’re born in this position. You’re king, you’re Lord of the Manor – you’re born in that position. So, therefore you must serve.”

That’s a weak relationship, because people are not happy having to serve.
The rulers take it for granted. They don’t have the society of the realms best interest at heart.

But if you compare – contrast – that with a contractual relationship where you have to offer someone enough to make it worth their while to become the member of the cleaning staff or garbage man or mine coal under the ground, they will do this quite happily.

And you see the difference in those types of societies: some rules are just better than others for societies.

So, what’s the analysis so far?

Well, The analysis so far is this:

  1. We are individuals and as such we have worth.
  2. This value cannot be sacrificed by others (non-owners) for their ends.
  3. The first right is Life…

..but when we say that we mean the right not to be hit, murdered, raped or anything like that. It is not a right to a standard of living or even the right to violate others’ rights to maintain your own life.  In other words, you cannot steal bread even if you are hungry and will die without that bread.

Ok. You can’t just steal someone else’s bread.

Now, the corollary to this is that with freedom comes responsibility.  If no one else is responsible for you, you have to take care of yourself.

And that’s a pretty scary thing. You have to be responsible for yourself – I know!

Coming from that right you can see where this leads then, since we are talking about responsibility, is that of liberty.

Each of us has faculties and talents that we can use to preserve, develop and perfect our lives.

It is the freedom to think as we think, to perceive the world as we perceive it, and to express ourselves as we wish. These are what constitute the right of Liberty.

A hermit does not care about the right of Liberty.  Why is that?  There is no one to impose any limitations on him.

It is because we live in society that we need to make distinctions between who can do what with which items.  This leads us to the development of the third right—Property.

Property rights are at the core of Freedom – of a free society.  They protect and allow for cooperation.  Their source stems from individual action.

And, Harper – this guy, actually here’s a picture of him. They call him baldy. There’s a bit of hair. I think it’s kind of unfair. – But in this book here he says this: “The only method consistent with liberty is the one that distinguishes between mine and thine according to the rule that the producer shall have the right to the product of his own labor. This foundation of economic liberty is important above all other considerations. By this concept, the right of ownership arises simultaneously with the production of anything; and ownership resides there until the producer-owner chooses to consume the product or transfer its ownership to another person through exchange, gift or inheritance.  The right to produce a thing thereby becomes the right to own it.”

So, if you have the right to make it then you have the right to own it. Those are inseparable.

“…and to deny one right is, in effect, to deny both.  This concept specifies that no part of production shall properly belong to a thief, or to a slave master or to a ruler by whatever title.”

If I make it, it’s mine. I don’t care what the majority of people voted for.  It’s mine; I made it.

Murray Rothbard in his book “The Ethics of Liberty” essentially says the same thing.

These rights are intertwined with each other and the loss of one – life, liberty, property – means that we lose all of them.

Back to Bastiat. OK. If I have the Greats I’m going to use the Greats. I like these guys.

So, Bastiat says: “Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?”

What is it that makes us, us?

If we are to be able to constantly protect each of these rights constantly/continuously, then we can group together to constantly protect these rights.

Again Bastiat: “If every person has the right to defend—even by force—his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force—for the same reason—cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.”

If I can’t steal from someone, then the collective also does not have that right. Why is that? Because rights precede government and rights precede statutes.  They come before.

Our individual rights do not come from government, they are not granted us by a constitution or a Declaration of Rights.

Recall the Declaration of Independence, it says this (and you have the copy of this in your books): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Now pay special attention to the next part: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

So the rights come first. When government separates us or violates our rights – separates us from our property, violates our rights – then the government is behaving unlawfully.

But what if they pass a law then it is legal, right? Yes, it’s legal. But it is still plunder. (Get to that in a moment.)

Back to the Declaration of Independence. Later on it says, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

The Declaration of Independence is absolutely radical. This perspective overturns thousands of years of human thinking. Many revolutions have since used this language to justify their fight for freedom.

So what then is freedom? [We’re so many minutes into our talk…] What’s freedom? We haven’t even defined it yet.

Mises point out that “Freedom always means: freedom from arbitrary action on the part of the police power.”  Liberty is NOT the freedom to do anything like rob and kill, riot and loot.  Start swinging in your arms so that you punch someone in the nose.  It can only exist when it is circumscribed by the rights described above.

Many wish to extend these rights and convert them into “the freedom froms” that I talked about at the beginning. Freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from illness.

The concept of Legal Plunder is very useful for refuting these false freedoms.  Since no individual can violate rights and since the government derived from individuals’ rights then it cannot have any extra powers – doesn’t have any extra rights or superior rights.

So, I got these rights: life, liberty property. That means what? It means that I cannot take a gun, come up to Jay (How do I know he is Jay?  He’s got a name tag, that’s why we have to wear name tags) – and say: “Give all you money!” Why? That’s stealing.

Now, if I take all you money and I go out and buy a pad of paper, charcoal pencil and I give it to Jonathan over here – it’s still stealing!

Even if you call it the National Endowment for the Arts – it’s still stealing!

I can’t do that. So, the government which is the collection of us also does not have that power. Where would it get that power from if it derives all its power from us?

If I should not steal, then neither should the government.  When government passes a law making its actions “legal” – oh, we passed a law, it’s legal; We can do it – it is still violating rights, it is still plundering.  So Bastiat uses the phrase “Legal Plunder.”

He says this: “But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”
This is why I use the Greats, because it is so clear. Could you take it from her? Yeah. It’s stealing, but we voted on it. Still stealing.

Bastiat says: “Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it” – such as, I like this list – “ tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on.”


“All these plans as a whole—with their common aim of legal plunder—constitute socialism.”

Now, let’s take a step back. I can take a step back. You can still sit.

The law is force.  Government is force.  It is coercion. At its root – that’s what it is. It is to threaten to violently reduce people’s options. You don’t want to do that? Well, you’re going to jail. We are violently reducing your options when you’re in jail.

If you don’t believe me try not paying your taxes.

Before government can do anything, it must first take.  And so the goal of the law should not be to promote justice or to cause justice to reign. “It ought to be stated that the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning.” (Bastiat) Notice the slight distinction. Instead of trying to reach an impossible ideal of perfect justice, what we should be trying to do is reduce the amount of injustice.

And, both the right and the left agree on this. They say yes, we want to reduce injustices.  However, we cannot violate rights to promote justice.  In order for government to stop the injustice of starving people – people are starving; that’s injustice; we want to prevent this – government would first have to take from others, which in itself is a violation of rights and an injustice.  We cannot move any closer to justice by creating injustices.

Do you see, what is going on here? Curing one injustice by creating another injustice.

So, all we can do then is remove injustices such as government’s wealth redistribution plans, etc.  It is by the negation of these injustices that we move closer to Justice. So if I am negating these takings – these stealings – then we move closer to Justice. But, we cannot actively pursue Justice. We have to sort of think of it as a negative concept.

Unfortunately, the way in which society perceives itself has changed – changed over the last hundred years. Specifically the argument has historically stemmed from the perspective that we are fallen beings.  We need limits because of our flawed nature – original sin.  But how does the idea of liberty change when we view ourselves as risen apes? We are not flawed but have conquered – we are better than every other species. We have the power to pull ourselves out of the primordial ooze, and so why shouldn’t we also have the power to plan a society? Such hubris is what Friedrich Hayek called the “Fatal Conceit.”

This idea that we have all the smarts, all this knowledge, that we can use to plan a society. (And we will be talking later on this week about what knowledge is actually out there that might be inarticulate knowledge or tacit knowledge that cannot be communicated or observed directly – cannot be collected directly by a central planning board.)

So, what we seen is that if people believe that we can shape society as an artist can shape clay. Whereas Adam Smith said we move pieces on a chess board. We think we can then shape and change society to the better because we studied this, we are sociologists and we know now.

But when we do this – now we start looking at the basic things – and we see that people ask… they don’t even ask the question anymore. Do we have a “right” to education?  Sheldon Richman later this week is going to talk about an education system that is not run by the government.

Do we have a “right” to water? (Or Mountain Dew…hmm…yummy and delicious. I will use this as a prop for the next lecture.) Because without water how can I have life? Without education, how can I have liberty or property?

What about right to healthcare?  Think about this. A right to healthcare. So, if I was standing on a street corner and there was a MD (medical doctor) standing next to me and we are chatting… la, la, la… Actually, that would be singing. Chatting blah, blah, blah. And I was so engrossed in that I wasn’t paying any attention, and I stepped into the street and bam, get hit by a car. There I am, laying on the street, bleeding, dying, not all happy… Do I have a right to healthcare?

Now, what does it mean to have a right to healthcare? That means that I can turn to my friend and go: “Give me healthcare!” …probably gurgling with blood and… but “Give me healthcare!”

I right to healthcare means that he must use his property, his talents, his time to help me out. Think about his relationship that we have. Who’s commanding who? Are we equals?

No. If I have a right to his time, his skills, his property, his labor. That makes me master, superior. It puts me on a higher plane. It makes him subordinate. You say, but you are dying. You need help. Otherwise you will die. That’s true! Absolutely true!

But should he help? That’s a different question. Should he help? Does he have a moral obligation? That’s a different question of whether or not I have a right. Because when I claim a right to his labor. I’m enslaving him to my purposes – to that degree.

If he has a moral obligation where does that come from? What is it? That’s compassion. Where does compassion come from? Comes from the human heart.

But remember, if I am forcing him, if I have a right, that means the government will force him to help me. That’s all government is, coercion. Here’s a gun. Help him! Well, help me.

If someone is pointing a gun in your heard are you being terrible? Is the doctor being compassionate?  Is he being charitable if someone points a gun into him and says: “Fix this person up!”?

No. Does he even have the opportunity to be compassionate and charitable? His ability to decide to be charitable has been taken away from him, because the decision has been forced upon him. Now he is no longer acting morally.

If I see someone who wants food or clothing or something, and I give him some money. It comes from my heart. I’m being compassionate – being charitable. But you are not being compassionate or charitable when you are paying taxes. When you go up to the Pearly Gates and you see Saint Peter and he says: “Have you served your fellow man, have you been compassionate and acted charitably to your fellow man. And you say: “Look at my 1040-form!”

He is not going to take that, is he? He’s like – no, you did not get signature on that. No!

So, the law cannot force compassion. And the Law is not being charitable. Government is not being charitable. But, we have to bail out General Motors. Why? Because all these people will lose their jobs. That’s sad. That’s sad. But don’t chalk it up as charity that we are trying to keep this people in jobs. Absolutely not – it’s anything but.

I and the rest of you have been forceably made co-owners, what ever that means.

So back to Bastiat, one last time, “It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights – life, liberty and property, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.

“Since law necessarily requires the support of force, its lawful domain is only in the areas where the use of force is necessary. This is justice.

“Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defense. It is for this reason that the collective force—which is only the organized combination of the individual forces—may lawfully be used for the same purpose;” – right, it is only for self-defense –  “and it cannot be used legitimately for any other purpose.”

You can use it for other things, clearly. Look at the society we are living. When you define inside as standing under a little awning or something…

So is all that government does some type of plunder?  Should we even have a government?

When we go down that road and I have several friends who are down that road they call themselves anarcho-capitalists. Anarchy, but not like the bad anarchy, this is capitalist anarchy.

Harper – one last time, this guy; good book; I’m very pleased with this book  –addresses the anarcho-capitalism question in this way, he says: “Based on all that has been said, one might easily conclude that government is an entirely negative force so far as liberty is concerned. He might conclude that anarchy…would be the ideal society, and that liberty would be complete under anarchy.  That would be true if all persons were perfect.  But they are not.”

And this comes back to the question how do we perceive ourselves. Are fallen beings or are we risen apes?

“With human frailties as they are, anarchy affords the opportunity for certain powerful and tyrannical individuals to enslave their fellow men, to the extent of their power to gain and keep control over others. So some degree of governmental function…is necessary if liberty is to be at a maximum; violators of liberty must be restrained so that the rights of liberty will be protected for those who respect them and play the game of society according to the rules of liberalism.”

The good liberalism – the classical liberalism.

“Thus at one extreme the absence of government allows anarchy to rob the people of their liberty, whereas at the other extreme the government itself becomes the robber of liberty. The task in a liberal society, therefore, is to find that point where all the people will enjoy the greatest possible degree of liberty.”

Personally, I am really close to anarcho-capitalism. I buy a lot of their arguments. I see a whole bunch of them.  I think that we should all strive to reduce plunder and expand liberty as much as we can.  And when we get to that little Minarchist state – that last little tiny state– maybe then I can decide whether we should abolish the last little bit of government or so.

But that’s not really the debate that we need. Because we are so far from that

point right now. It’s sort of like how many angles are dancing on the top of the Mountain Dew bottle?  It’s kind of pointless. What we need to do is pull in one direction and pull hard, not fight with each other.

My thoughts on what the right size of government is right now is… Imagine your own personal worst enemy. You know who that is.  And they can be placed in charge of the government and you would be okay with it.

Because right now if my own worst personal enemy was placed in position of power and they control the courts, IRS and other taxing, regulatory authorities then my life would be miserable.

But if we can reduce the government to the size where you can take your own personal worst enemy and put them in charge of all the things that the government does and you are okay with it. That’s a pretty good size government.

I have asked many questions. I have raised many questions that each of us is attempting to answer.

There are some answers: communism – bad. But the task set before us is to find that “greatest possible degree of liberty” for society.  This week is “Freedom University.”  What we should do is explore what exactly that means through good discussion and deep thinking.

So, I’m really excited about this week.

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CIEL wrote 62 articles on this blog.