Liberty and the Power of Ideas

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author author from an essay first published in the February 1979 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”


A belief which I stressed again and again in my classes when I taught economics at Northwood University in Michigan was the belief that we are at war—not a physical, shooting war but nonetheless a war which is fully capable of becoming just as destructive and just as costly.

The battle for the preservation and advancement of liberty is a battle not against personalities but against opposing ideas. The French author Victor Hugo declared that “More powerful than armies is an idea whose time has come.” Armies conquer bodies, but ideas capture minds. The English philosopher Carlyle put it this way many decades ago: “But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it to himself, much less to others): the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest.”

In the past, ideas have had earthshaking consequences. They have determined the course of history. For good or ill, they bring down governments and raise other ones up.

The system of feudalism existed for a thousand years in large part because scholars, teachers, intellectuals, educators, clergymen and politicians propagated feudalistic ideas. The notion of “once a serf, always a serf’ kept millions of people from ever questioning their station in life. Under the mercantilism practiced from the 16th through the 18th Centuries, the widely-accepted concept that the world’s wealth was fixed prompted men to take what they wanted from others in a long series of bloody wars.

The publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776 is a landmark in the history of the power of ideas. As Smith’s message of free trade spread, political barriers to peaceful cooperation collapsed and virtually the whole world decided to try freedom for a change.

In arguing against freedom of the press in 1924, Lenin made the famous statement that “ideas are much more fatal than guns.” To this day, ideas by themselves can get you a prison sentence in a lot of places around the world.

Marx and the Marxists would have us believe that socialism is inevitable, that it will embrace the world as surely as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. As long as men have free will (the power to choose right from wrong) however, nothing that involves this human volition can ever be inevitable! Men do things because they are of the mind to do them; they are not robots programmed to carry out some preordained dictum.

Winston Churchill once said that “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy. Its inherent trait is the equal sharing of misery.” Socialism is an age-old failure, yet the socialist idea constitutes the chief threat to liberty today. So it is that believers in liberty, to be effective, must first identify and isolate the socialist notions which have taken their toll on liberty. In doing that, and then refraining from advancing those ideas, we can at the same time advance liberty. As I see it, socialism can be broken down into five ideas.

The Pass a Law Syndrome. Passing laws has become a national pastime in most Western countries. When a problem in society is cited, the most frequent response seems to be, “Pass a law!” Business in trouble? Pass a law to give it public subsidies or restrict its freedom of action. Poverty? Pass a law to abolish it. Perhaps we need a law against passing more laws.

In 1977 the American Congress enacted 223 new laws. It repealed hardly any. During that same year, the Washington bureaucracy wrote 7,568 new regulations, all having the force of law. (Thirty-three years later, the situation is even worse. Now, few in Congress even read the bills they vote for, some of which are in the thousands of pages).

James Madison in 1795 identified this syndrome as “the old trick of turning every difficulty into a reason for accumulating more force in government.” His observation leads one to ask, “Just what happens when a new law goes on the books?” Almost invariably, a new law means: a) more taxes to finance its administration; b) additional government officials to regulate some heretofore unregulated aspect of life; and c) new penalties for violating the law. In brief, more laws mean more regimentation, more coercion. Let there be no doubt about what the word “coercion” means: force, plunder, compulsion, restraint. Synonyms for the verb form of the word are even more instructive: impel, exact, subject, conscript, extort, wring, pry, twist, dragoon, bludgeon, and squeeze!

When government begins to intervene in the free economy, bureaucrats and politicians spend most of their time undoing their own handiwork. To repair the damage of Provision A, they pass Provision B. Then they find that to repair Provision B, they need Provision C and to undo C, they need D, and so on until the alphabet and our freedoms are exhausted.

The Pass a Law Syndrome is evidence of a misplaced faith in the political process, a reliance on force which is anathema to a free society. It’s also a sign that people have abandoned confidence in themselves and would prefer dependence upon politicians and largely unaccountable bureaucrats who usually are among the least capable in society to run the lives of others.

The Get Something From Government Fantasy. Government by definition has nothing to distribute except what it first takes from people. Taxes are not donations!

In the welfare state, this basic fact gets lost in the rush for special favors and giveaways. People speak of “government money” as if it were truly “free.” It may not be an exaggeration to say that perhaps the welfare state is so named because the politicians get well and the rest of us pay the fare.

One who is thinking of accepting something from government which he could not acquire voluntarily should ask, “From whose pocket is it coming? Am I being robbed to pay for this benefit or is government robbing someone else on my behalf?” Frequently, the answer will be both. The end result of this “fantasy” is that everyone in society has his hands in someone else’s pockets.

The Pass the Buck Psychosis. Recently a welfare recipient wrote her welfare office and demanded, “This is my sixth child. What are you going to do about it?”

An individual is victim to the Pass the Buck Psychosis when he abandons himself as the solver of his problems. He might say, “My problems are really not mine at all. They are society’s, and if society doesn’t solve them and solve them quickly, there’s going to be trouble!”

Socialism thrives on the shirking of responsibility. When men lose their spirit of independence and initiative, their confidence in themselves, they become clay in the hands of tyrants and despots. I might add: The only thing socialism has ever really done for poor people is to give them lots of company.

The Know-It-All Affliction. Leonard Read, in The Free Market and Its Enemy, identified “know-it-allness” as a central feature of the socialist idea. The know-it-all is a meddler in the affairs of others. His attitude can be expressed in this way: “I know what’s best for you, but I’m not content to merely convince you of my rightness; I’d rather force you to adopt my ways.” The know-it-all evinces arrogance and a lack of tolerance for the great diversity among people.

In government, the know-it-all refrain sounds like this: “If I didn’t think of it, then it can’t be done, and since it can’t be done, we must prevent anyone from trying.”

A group of West Coast businessmen ran into this snag recently when their request to operate a barge service between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission because the agency felt the group could not operate such a service profitably!

The miracle of the market is that when men and women are free to try, they can and do accomplish great things. Leonard Read’s well-known admonition that there should be “no man-concocted restraints against the release of creative energy” is a powerful rejection of the Know-It-All Affliction. (Leonard Read was the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education and you can read more about him here: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/featured/leonard-e-read-crusader/).

The Envy Obsession. Coveting the wealth and income of others has given rise to a sizable chunk of today’s socialist legislation. Envy is the fuel that runs the engine of redistribution. Surely, the many soak the-rich schemes are rooted in envy and covetousness.

What happens when people are obsessed with envy? They blame those who are better off than themselves for their troubles. Society is fractured into classes and faction preys upon faction. Civilizations have been known to crumble under the weight of envy and the disrespect for property which it entails.

A common thread runs through these five socialist ideas. They all appeal to the darker side of man: the primitive, noncreative, slothful, dependent, demoralizing, unproductive, and destructive side of human nature. No society can long endure if its people practice such suicidal notions!

Consider the freedom philosophy. What a contrast! It is an uplifting, regenerative, motivating, creative, exciting philosophy! It appeals to and relies upon the higher qualities of human nature such as self-reliance, personal responsibility, individual initiative, respect for property, and voluntary cooperation.

Nobel laureate economist F. A. Hayek (author of the seminal 1944 book, “The Road to Serfdom”) called attention to the power of ideas in preserving liberty: “Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark.”

The verdict in the struggle between freedom and serfdom depends entirely upon what percolates in the hearts and minds of men. At the present time, in every nation of the world, the jury is still deliberating.

About the author

Lawrence W. Reed wrote 32 articles on this blog.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.

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Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.