Friendship and the Free Society

by Andrew I. Cohen

Andrew Cohen teaches philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Private property and limited government are unrivaled in promoting personal liberty and material abundance. These institutions of a free society also beat the competition in promoting another vital personal and social good, namely, friendship.

Beneath our differences, people understand that self-respect, some wealth, a sense of personal efficacy, and maybe even a dash of luck are among the essential ingredients of a successful life. These values would still seem shallow or pointless without friendship. As Aristotle observed, “No one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Our achievements would be emptier and our failures more unbearable without friends by our side. If friendship is then not the supreme good, it is certainly an essential one. Some of us are admittedly less social than others. The companionship that comes in meaningful friendships nevertheless seems to be a key part of the good life.

There are of course many sorts of friendships. Some persons are friends out of convenience. Perhaps our typical “acquaintances” fall into such a category. There are also friendships based merely on what two people find mutually pleasing. Both of these types of relationships help amplify our lives in various ways, but the best sorts of friendships are those where each friend cares deeply and sincerely about the other. In such complete friendships, each friend respects the other person, not as a means to his own ends, but as an end in himself.

A free society is uniquely qualified to promote the most complete friendships because it provides the institutional framework most favorable to them.

Freedom by Degrees

By a “free society,” we can speak of a social and political framework with three key features: (1) private property is protected as inviolable, (2) government’s role, at most, is to prevent and punish the violation of individual rights, and (3) all human relationships are voluntary. Free societies can exist in degrees. While the United States now is more free than, say, the Soviet Union under Stalin, the United States is not a completely free society. To the extent that a society counts as free, it will provide the best opportunities to nurture and sustain deep friendships.

Consider what is necessary for friendships. Two persons must share some form of good will. There needs to be a certain authenticity to any such mutual affection. This sincere good will helps to nurture a sense of trust and healthy interdependence. Trust is certainly key to building and maintaining any meaningful relationship, particularly in complete friendships where friends have a special respect for each other. But suppose you find yourself in an institutional environment where you have no choice but to interact with someone else. Such a stilted setting will tend to restrict the development of any friendship. While you may still come to be friends with the other person, it is much more difficult for you to do so under such circumstances. First you must overcome some understandable mutual suspicion, but then you must fight the worry that the other merely likes you as a means to some private end.

In all political economies, individuals will sometimes find themselves having to deal with persons somewhat involuntarily. Even in a nearly free society, we may find ourselves working for, going to school with, or just sitting beside persons with whom we would rather have no contact.

Consider just one example. Most municipalities have tightly regulated local telephone monopolies. To a great extent we have no choice but to deal with our telephone repairman. His incentive to engage in gestures of good will, and our reason to show him some sincere regard, are both constrained. The repairman’s “have a nice day” rings hollow when we know that we have no choice but to get our telephone service from that one company.

What a free society does is minimize the extent to which human relationships are involuntary. When we have no choice but to deal with someone, sincere good will is often hard to muster. But when individuals are free to come and go as they please and they nevertheless continue to interact with one another, they can be more certain of one another. They might then foster the trust and mutuality necessary for genuine friendships.

Take a lower-level friendship, such as one of mere convenience. We have such friendships with many persons, such as with the family doctor, the corner florist, or (if we are lucky) with car mechanics, plumbers, and carpenters. Our good will toward such persons is mostly based on what they can offer us. Genuine good will is an ingredient in any wholesome friendship. To the extent our displays of good will are sincere, it is because we recognize both the value such persons represent to us and their freedom to do as they wish.

These low-level friendships are often steppingstones toward the more complete friendships where each friend regards the other as an end in himself. People usually do not just fall into friendships. They develop their relationships, often starting out on the fragile and fleeting bases of mutual pleasure or mutual convenience. The trust that comes from freedom of choice can only help foster the good will that gets started in such rudimentary relationships. The enhanced freedom of choice characteristic of free societies also removes several impediments to the deepening of these relationships.

To say that the institutions of a free society best facilitate friendship does not mean that people didn’t have good friends in, say, Maoist China. (Perhaps genuine friends were especially valuable there.) But it is far more difficult to discover, nurture, and sustain good friendships when human relationships are not entirely voluntary. What a free society does is enhance our range of freedom of choice. We have more options to select or reject. When you find yourself interacting with persons in this wider range of choice, you have better reason to believe that another’s interest in you is genuine. You also have better reason to know that your own interest is genuine. The corner baker is more apt to take an interest in your life when he knows quite well that you could just as well go across the street to a competitor or bake your own muffins. You may also be more likely to feel a mutual good will toward the baker when you know that you are free not to patronize him.

Private Property

Another characteristic of a free society even more important and powerful for advancing friendships is private property.

What good is wealth, Aristotle asks rhetorically, unless we have people we care about with whom to share it? Ambiguously defined property rights and property that is not private notoriously promote waste and neglect. What matters here, however, is that when property is not private, or when it is otherwise not fully protected as private, individuals have diminished opportunities to cultivate the benevolence characteristic of genuine friendships.

There is a certain sort of kindness that helps to nurture and sustain friendships. This is the kindness manifested by freely sharing one’s belongings with others. Unless one owns property, however, it is difficult if not impossible to show benevolence toward another. With what would one be benevolent? It is not benevolence if you grant another access to some good to which you do not have an exclusive, protected claim.

Benevolence is still a vital ingredient in bringing a relationship to a higher level, one where you spontaneously and willingly contribute to a friend’s well-being. What property does is give individuals a protected sphere of control over some range of action and material goods. It sets up a divide between what is “mine” (and not yours) and what is not “mine” (but someone else’s). “Property” here is not just a material thing but also includes one’s freedom, one’s time, and one’s body. Even the materially poor man can be benevolent toward another; the poor man still owns himself and his time. The authentically benevolent man then freely waives his rights to exclude others from his goods. In doing so, he builds trust and helps to enhance his friend’s welfare. Such gestures lay the groundwork for later reciprocal gestures that, in a complete friendship, come freely and without any thought to some payoff.

A free society enhances the quantity of property individuals own and protects as inviolable whatever property rights individuals enjoy. A free society thereby promotes authentic friendships by giving people added opportunities to engage in meaningful sharing. If resources move from one person to another when they do nothave to, the recipient is better able to gauge the motives of the gesture. Indeed, the one who gave the property away is better able to be sure of his own motives. A free society does well in clearing the air in this fashion. Relationships are voluntary, and property is exchanged and redistributed only through free consent. Such gestures lay the groundwork for the most meaningful sorts of friendships.

Friendships are possible in a variety of circumstances, including in the most repressive of dictatorships. What a free society does is make the discovery, development, and sustenance of friendships of all types—particularly the most meaningful sort—easier. When free, individuals have a diminished need to second-guess the motives of others (and themselves) and they are better in a position to be generous. The freedom not to do what others may want us to do is a valuable liberty. Besides providing a sense of autonomy, that freedom is an important ingredient in expanding the opportunities for the friendships that characterize a successful human life.

This article has been published with FEE‘s permission and has been originally published at The Freeman March 1999 • Volume: 49 • Issue: 8.

The Predatory Price Cutting Bogeyman

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CIEL by the author from an essay first published in the July 1997 issue of FEE’s journal, The Freeman.

In the literature of anti-capitalism, the dominant bogeyman is unquestionably the big, private, profit-seeking company. Is there a sin imaginable that hasn’t been laid at the doorstep of those who own or manage large firms?

Defenders of capitalism have produced powerful arguments and voluminous evidence exposing much of the anti-capitalist literature as mythology—attacks that seem plausible on the surface but which dissolve when set against either economic principles or practical experience.

One of the more common attacks concerns a strategy that, according to the mythology, big companies employ often and successfully against their smaller competitors. It is known as predatory price-cutting, commonly understood as the practice of underselling rivals to bankrupt them, and then raising prices to take advantage of the absence of competition.

Recently, when an anti-capitalist professor raised this issue, I asked him if his state-subsidized university was engaging in this very thing by charging tuition that did not cover its instructional costs. Private colleges, I pointed out, can’t combat this competition by relying on taxes to level the playing field. My professor friend responded by arguing that predatory price-cutting assumes an evil intent, and no government really intends to drive private colleges from the market by establishing its own universities. Besides, he said, we must look at the actual effects: private colleges indeed exist and even thrive, in spite of the subsidized competition.

In referring to actual effects, the professor was unwittingly making a point that undermined his case. Predatory price-cutting is a theory that, more often than not, falls apart when it leaves the classroom and enters the real world. The fact is, in a free market, large firms rarely attempt it and when they do, they usually fail at it. Even large firms that have the power of government on their side find it much harder to succeed as predators than the theory at first suggests.

The early experiences of the Dow Chemical Company provide an interesting case in point. Dow—an industrial giant famous for its aspirin, chlorine products, and plastic wrap—was once a prey that many expected would not survive. I’m indebted to my friend (and senior historian at FEE) Dr. Burton Folsom for first acquainting me with this story.

Herbert Dow, the founder, had already started two other chemical companies by 1897: one went broke, and the other fired him. “Crazy Dow” was what the folks in Midland, Michigan called him. Like David fighting Goliath, he did battle head-on with large German chemical monopolies and eventually toppled them from world dominance. It was hard to tell, in the end, who was really the predator and who was really the prey.

Dow’s key product was bromine, which he could sell as a sedative or as a chemical to develop photographs. He invented a process to separate bromine from the sea of brine underneath the city of Midland. With gusto, Dow sold his bromine inside the United States, but not outside—at least not at first.

The Germans had been the dominant supplier of bromine since it first was mass-marketed in the mid-1800s. No American dared compete overseas with the powerful German cartel, Die Deutsche Bromkonvention, which fixed the world price for bromine at a lucrative 49 cents a pound. Customers either paid the 49 cents or they went without. Dow and other Americans sold bromine inside the United States for 36 cents. The Bromkonvention made it clear that the Americans were lucky to be allowed to sell at all, and that if they tried to sell outside America the cartel would flood the American market with cheap bromine and drive them all out of business.

By 1904, Dow was ready to break the rules: He moved to sell bromine in Europe and Japan at a price well below that of the cartel. Before long, the Bromkonvention went on a rampage. It poured bromides into America at 15 cents a pound, well below its fixed price of 49 cents, and also below Dow’s 36-cent price.

Was Dow the helpless little guy, about to be smashed by the evil German capitalists just like the predatory price-cutting theorists would have predicted? Quite the contrary, he was the quintessential entrepreneurial genius who gives capitalism its cutting edge. He had his agent in New York discreetly buy hundreds of thousands of pounds of German bromides at the cartel’s 15-cent price. Then Dow repackaged the German bromides and sold them in Europe—including Germany—at 27 cents a pound. “When this 15-cent price was made over here,” Dow said, “instead of meeting it, we pulled out of the American market altogether and used all our production to supply the foreign demand. This, as we afterward learned, was not what they anticipated we would do.”

Indeed, as Folsom revealed in his book, Empire Builders: The Vision and Influence of Michigan’s Early Entrepreneurs, the Germans were befuddled. They expected to run Dow out of business; and this they thought they were doing. But why was U.S. demand for bromine so high? And where was this flow of cheap bromine into Europe coming from? Was one of the Bromkonvention members cheating and selling bromine in Europe below the fixed price? The tension in the cartel was dramatic. According to Dow, the German producers got into trouble among themselves as to who was to supply the goods for the American market.

The confused Germans kept cutting U.S. prices—first to 12 cents and then to 10.5 cents a pound. Dow meanwhile kept buying these cheap bromides and reselling them in Europe for 27 cents. By the time the Bromkonvention finally caught on to what Dow was doing, it had lost the price-cutting war. Dow had secured new markets for his own company with his competitors’ product, and he was now in a position to build a chemical giant. He went on to beat foreign, government-subsidized cartels in dyes and magnesium. Consumers of ever cheaper and better products were the biggest winners.

The predatory price-cutting charge is most commonly applied to the early history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. But here, too, the record departs from the rhetoric. Professor John S. McGee, writing in the October 1958 Journal of Law and Economics, showed conclusively that Rockefeller did not engage in the practice because he was smart enough to know that other entrepreneurs weren’t helpless nitwits who would take it lying down. (For a more complete explanation, see either McGee’s article or my own in the March 1980 issue of The Freeman, “Witch-Hunting for Robber Barons: The Standard Oil Story”: http://tinyurl.com/d3zrhe).

Anti-capitalist literature is rife with demons, monsters, and other assorted bogeymen, but so are fairy tales.

Illuminating the Unseen – Economic Freedoms Help Transform Our Lives

By Russell Roberts

Russell Roberts is director of the Management Center at the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of “The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism” (Prentice Hall).

The good effects of laws are often easily seen. The bad effects, unseen. So observed Frederic Bastiat 150 years ago. His basic insight remains true today. We live in busy times. Information bombards us. In such a world, even that which is seen is often overlooked. The unseen is that much more elusive.

If we are to make the case for economic freedom, we have to bring these unseen costs to light. Consider an increase in the minimum wage. What is seen: businesses give some of their low-wage workers a raise. The direct effects of the minimum wage—more money for low-wage workers, less money for businesses that pay them—frame the entire debate. Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri says the minimum wage is bad because it hurts small business—as he argued in his recent re-election campaign. So most people see the minimum wage as a tax on small business that helps the poor. No wonder many people think it’s a good idea.

If we want to dent the consciousness of the average American, we have to talk about how the minimum wage doesn’t just tax small business. We have to show how it bankrupts some firms that hire low-skill workers. That means fewer opportunities for low-skill workers. But even the firms that survive will try to reduce the hours of low-skill workers and their numbers. In short, while the minimum wage helps some low-skill workers by giving them a modest pay increase, it has a devastating effect on others, pushing them out of the work force and into the street. The minimum wage thwarts human possibility among those it tries to help. And as Bastiat understood, it is easy to see those who are helped by the minimum wage. Those who are harmed are much harder to identify.

We’ve done a decent job explaining the hidden costs of the minimum wage. We’ve done such a good job, in fact, that proponents of the minimum wage have actually tried to argue that increases in the minimum wage have no effect on low-skill employment. To paraphrase Orwell, you’d have to be an academic economist to find that argument compelling. But in other areas, we have a long way to go if we wish to cast light on the unseen costs of government intervention.

Free Trade and Protectionism

Here’s how trade often gets discussed in the media: should we destroy jobs in America in order to have cheap imports? That’s like being asked how long you’ve been beating your wife. Why does it get discussed this way?

Opponents of free trade want the American people to think that trade is about destroying jobs in order to get cheap foreign goods. It makes free trade look mean-spirited and mercenary. But another reason is that these are the most obvious effects of free trade. If Americans buy from foreign suppliers, people understand that fewer Americans will be hired in the competing domestic companies. Unseen are the jobs created to make the products we exchange with foreigners. Unseen is the impact of specialization and comparative advantage. Unseen is the power of foreign competition to induce our domestic industries to innovate.

Unless we can illuminate the unseen, making the case for free trade will be an uphill battle. Unfortunately, one of the best things about free trade is extremely difficult to see: free trade allows resources to flow to their highest use. But to make the argument compelling, we have to describe it in a way that allows it to be seen without a semester’s worth of economics.

Freeing Up Opportunity

Somewhere in South Carolina, there’s a high school girl whose mom works in a textile factory. This girl doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, but like most high school kids in America, she probably doesn’t want to work in the same job or career as her parents. The security of the textile factory is appealing, but she might want to go to college and try something different. It all depends on her options.

That factory is threatened by Chinese competition. Should we let the factory go under or should we protect it from the cheaper Chinese imports? We could spend hours on the pros and cons and the economic impact of that decision. But let’s look at the impact on that girl in high school. If we keep the factory around, we make the choice of working in the factory more appealing. If we let the factory die, we change the available options. We push her out into the world.

Exploring the world is a good thing, but that’s not reason enough for letting the factory go under. What is harder to see is that the world to be explored is a more vibrant and alive place when the factory goes under. Allowing the factory to die frees up capital and management skill that can be used elsewhere. If we maintain all of the factories and all of the companies that cannot survive competition, then the American economy is a much more static place.

If we try to make everything for ourselves and be self-sufficient, we lose the opportunity to specialize in doing what we do best. Our capital gets tied up in industries that do not take the greatest advantage of our unique skills. Free trade allows a high school kid in South Carolina to inherit a world of maximum human potential, with the maximum chance for her to use her gifts, whatever they may be.

A skeptic would ask how the girl in South Carolina is going to achieve her potential if her mom is out of work. And that in turn might lead to a discussion of how past generations have managed to survive and thrive in a dynamic economy. In 1900, one-third of the American work force was in agriculture. Today the number is around 3 percent. Do you think the kids on the farms of 1900 are glad that we let agriculture become more capital intensive with fewer jobs? It wasn’t a trivial transition, but in 1900, we couldn’t see the industries that would arise to use the skills of the next generation. And we can’t know the opportunities that will arise to help that girl in South Carolina if we let the textile factory fail. But they will arise. What they will be depends on the gifts and aspirations of the next generation.

If we want to inspire people to support free trade, we must touch their imagination. Bastiat understood that 150 years ago. Our best chance is to make the unseen, seen. Economics can bring the unseen to light, but only if we leave the jargon behind and show how free trade and other economic freedoms help transform our lives.

This article has been published with FEE‘s permission and has been originally published at The Freeman March 1999 • Volume: 49 • Issue: 3.

Character and Principles

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org. It is adapted from a 2007 essay by the author for the Center for the American Experiment in Minnesota.”

Playing a politician in a classic Marx Brothers comedy, the inimitable Groucho once declared, “Those are my principles! If you don’t like them, I have others!”

We laugh at Groucho’s line but it’s a flash of candor that too many of today’s politicians aren’t honest enough to say in public even though it describes the way they behave. I wish they would subscribe to a set of principles rooted firmly in truth and consistency, press for policies that advance those principles, and compromise only when it’s required to at least move the ball down the field in that direction. But before we can expect politicians to be so principled, we must insist they be men and women of character.

Character is what differentiates a politician from a statesman. Statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. Like George Washington, they often are people who take time out from productive careers of accomplishment to temporarily serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because that’s all they know how to do. They stand for a principled vision, not for what they think citizens will fall for. When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office and become a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that greased his campaign.

Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They do not engage in class warfare, race-baiting or in other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. They take responsibility for their actions. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior.

When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish. Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are. Statesmen, in other words, possess a level of character that an ordinary politician does not.

In America’s first century, Americans generally were skeptical of the expansion of government power not because they read policy studies or earned degrees in economics but because they placed a high priority on character. Using government to get something at somebody else’s expense, or mortgaging the future for near-term gain, seemed dishonest and cynical to them, if not downright sinful and immoral.

One of the fascinating people in American history is Grover Cleveland. (see http://ciel.fi/en/blog/grover-cared/). He had no college education, no formal economics training and may have never read a policy paper before being elected president. Nonetheless, he almost always came to the right policy conclusions. That’s because he clearly saw the connection between character and the principles of a free society. Because he possessed the former, he became a champion of the latter.

Cleveland said what he meant and meant what he said. He did not lust for political office, and he never felt he had to cut corners, equivocate or connive in order to get elected. He was so forthright and plain-spoken that he makes Harry Truman seem indecisive by comparison. H.L. Mencken, who was known for cutting politicians down to size, wrote a nice little essay on Cleveland entitled “A Good Man in a Bad Trade.”

Cleveland thought it was an act of fundamental dishonesty for some to use government for their own benefit at everyone else’s expense. Accordingly, he took a firm stand against some early stirrings of an American welfare state. The country was in good hands when it was run by principled citizens like Cleveland.

So, you might want to know, how quick should elected officials be to compromise? I offer here no clear line of demarcation, just a suggestion that if we insisted first and foremost on character, this question would matter a whole lot less than it does today. I’d sooner trust a statesman than a politician to know when to compromise.

Philosophy 1 On 1 – The Principles of Classical Liberalism Are Intuitive

by James Otteson

James Otteson teaches in the department of philosophy at the University of Alabama.

It is no secret that classical liberalism receives little attention in American academic philosophy, and then generally only as a historical artifact. What one hears is something like this: “No serious philosopher today believes that people can get on without substantial, organized help from the government. The only issues are in what way the government should help and to what extent; the issue of whether the government should help can no longer be seriously entertained.”

There are of course exceptions—Robert Nozick, David Schmidtz, and Eric Mack come to mind—but they are a decided minority and, in my experience at least, are often not considered to be within the philosophical mainstream. I have thus faced considerable difficulty convincing my colleagues that classical liberalism is worth thinking about at all, let alone worth careful examination. But a free society is worth the effort, and so I have explored many methods of opening the closed intellectual doors I have encountered, believing that if I can get others to think about classical liberalism for just a few minutes, I will find some place where it matches up with—or, if I am lucky, accounts for—a deep moral or political intuition they already have. When that happens, I have found that classical liberalism suddenly gains a footing as a position that has at least the possibility of plausibility. And that is a start.

Connecting to Intuition

In my experience arguments for classical liberalism rarely get off the ground unless they can first make this connection to intuition. Hence the method I have settled on for extending liberty’s cause in my discipline of philosophy is one that, first, seizes on a few of the adversary’s deeply held intuitions and then uses those intuitions as bases on which arguments can be built. I think three intuitions in particular combine to make an initial case for the free society that almost any person, regardless of his political position, will find formidable.

Here’s how I propose going about it.

Begin by asking whether there is anything wrong with rape. Now of course such a question may well shock its hearer, but a shock is sometimes necessary to get people to think hard about a different way of looking at the world. Ask your adversary to answer the question seriously. So: yes, there is something wrong with rape. Well, what is it exactly? It does not suffice to say that rape is self-evidently wrong because it might not be self-evidently wrong to everyone. The rapist, for example, might not think so.

To bring the matter into sharper focus, ask this next: Is rape always wrong—or might there be occasions when it is acceptable? What if raping a person would lead to some greater good? For example, should we consider whether the rapist might not receive such a degree of pleasure from the rape that it effectively cancels out the pain and suffering the victim experiences? On that ground, then, should we judge each rape on a case-by-case basis, asking in each instance whether the act in question led to a net increase or decrease in welfare? This question is typically met with horror: of course rape is always wrong and of course its wrongness is not subject to any utilitarian calculation. It is wrong absolutely and simply so. The following suggestion will now seem quite apt and will almost always meet with approval: rape is wrong always and everywhere because a person’s body is inviolable; a person has an absolute right to his (or her) body, and anyone who breaches that right is acting immorally regardless of his reasons. A person is, as it were, the owner of his own body, and as such he has absolute say over what gets done to it.

At this point the case for a free society has already begun to be built, though one’s adversary probably does not see it. It is time to call up the second intuition, again by asking a question whose answer will seem obvious. Is there anything wrong with slavery? Well, what exactly? Again we must not allow “self-evidence” to justify our belief that slavery is wrong because many people evidently have believed and continue to believe that slavery is at least in some circumstances acceptable. Might slavery be wrong because it violates the dignity of the enslaved by treating him as a means to someone else’s end? Might it be wrong because it dehumanizes the enslaved, treats him as if he were the moral equivalent of a pack animal?

Yes, that is it: slavery is wrong because it treats a man as if he were not a man; it fails to respect his inherent dignity, his inherent worth as a human being. But suppose that Congress—and congressmen, note, are popularly elected—passed legislation requiring the enslavement of some minority of the population. Suppose that to supply vital industries with much-needed cheap labor, the majority of us decided to enslave all, let us say, Irishmen. This would be democracy in action; the whole process would be strictly according to protocol in a democratic country. That would be acceptable, would it not?

Of course not! the reply will come. Slavery can never be justified, no matter how many people voted for it. And now one’s adversary will believe what has already been said with almost unshakable conviction: slavery disrespects the inherent dignity in a human being and is therefore always wrong. A person may not in any way be used against his will for the sake of another person, and his sovereignty over his own life is immune from democratic (or any other) lawmaking.

Is Theft Wrong?

Now the foundations of the free society are almost entirely laid. Only one more element is required. Is there anything wrong with stealing? This matter can be a bit tricky, because there will be those who think that stealing is justified in the case of a poor man stealing from a rich man. Put that possibility off for a moment and ask the hearer to answer whether theft as a general practice is acceptable. Is it all right for anyone who wants something simply to take it regardless of who owns the thing in question? To this question the answer will be “no.” But once again, why is it not all right?

Although the intuition that stealing is wrong is strong, people are often not quite sure what to say about why it is wrong. Proceed, then, with this question. Suppose Congress took a vote, and the majority, which carried the day, passed legislation licensing local police authorities to take anyone’s property whenever in their judgment, and in their judgment alone, they saw fit to do so. Would there be anything wrong with that? Would the fact that such a practice had been signed into law thereby make the practice morally acceptable? Odds are that the answer to this will be “no” as well.

Make, then, this suggestion. People have a right to what they own—that is, to what they have legitimately acquired (through labor, trade, or gift); stealing violates that right and for that reason is wrong. To return to the case of the poor man stealing from the rich man: how wealthy a person is does not seem relevant to our explanation of why theft is wrong. Theft violates a right, and hence it is wrong regardless of whose right is in question. If one’s adversary wavers on this point, remind him that there is always someone poorer than oneself, and thus everyone is a “rich man” relative to someone else—so if he is willing to allow an exception for a “poor man” to steal from a “rich man,” he is effectively licensing not only everyone else but also himself to be robbed. Is he still willing to make this exception?

Government Violates Rights

One can now move in for the coup de grâce: one’s adversary, whether he realizes it or not, is a classical liberal. Everything the state does beyond protecting these basic, negative rights of individuals is a violation of these same rights. Conscription, for example, is a use of your body to which you did not assent. The income tax and the staggering national debt are nothing but obligations on you to labor for the benefit of someone else. Wealth transfers to the poor, subsidies to farmers, support for the arts, and Social Security are all the forcible seizure of some people’s property in order to give it to others. And however noble the cause, however good the intentions, however many people voted in favor—rape, slavery, and theft are still wrong. And hence all the government programs that are merely particular instances of the principles underlying the immorality of rape, slavery, and theft are wrong as well.

One concrete example will show that the strong language of rape, slavery, and theft is justified in the case of government action. Estimated projections are that an average American born in 1999 will face an effective income tax rate of one hundred percent of his lifetime earnings simply to pay off the financial obligations that the American federal government will have incurred—and that is assuming that no more government programs are created. One hundred percent of lifetime earnings to make good on debts that these people played no part in creating and from which they will receive no benefit. How do you define slavery?

My genuine suspicion is that virtually all people are libertarians in their personal, everyday lives. In practice they regard anything that violates the sanctity of a person acting privately to be wrong. Certainly among my colleagues in philosophy I have met no one who would bodily assault another person (except perhaps in self-defense), who would enslave another person, or who would steal from another person. The challenge for the supporter of a free society, then, is threefold. First, he must get his adversaries to see that these three principles—the right to one’s body, the right to one’s labor, and the right to one’s belongings—are the fundamental organizing principles of classical liberalism. Second, he must show his adversaries that they already subscribe to these principles, a fact demonstrated by their reaction to the series of questions raised above. And, finally, he must bring his adversaries to understand that these principles are binding on everyone, including those who work for the government.

This last point is especially difficult since many people are inclined to believe that the government has an authority all its own. That is, they think that if the government says something, it must be right; and if the government tells one to do something, one’s sole duty is to obey. But one can summon a strong impulse to reconsider this thinking by pointing out that the government is nothing more than other people. If one would expect one’s neighbors to live by the three principles of respecting others’ lives, liberty, and property, then one should expect government employees to live by them as well. A person gains no special knowledge and earns no exemption from the requirements of morality merely by becoming an employee of the government.

Now I have not demonstrated that the free society is the only morally acceptable society (though I believe that it is). A philosophically sophisticated person will demand further argument for the principles underlying each of these intuitions, even if he shares them. It does not follow from the fact that one has a certain intuition about a moral matter, or even from the fact that many people have the same intuitions, that the matter is thereby settled. One’s intuitions might after all be wrong.

Moreover, I have not yet shown that the moral principles that I have suggested underlie these intuitions are in fact the principles that underlie them. It is possible to construct moral condemnations of rape, slavery, and theft—and thus justifications for the respect of life, liberty, and property—without appeal to natural rights. It might be possible, for example, to give a utilitarian or consequentialist rationale for these principles, although the sense that these principles deserve absolute recognition will be difficult to preserve within a utilitarian moral framework. It is also quite possible that one either has these intuitions or embraces these principles because one subscribes to Austrian economic thought. A follower of Ludwig von Mises or F.A. Hayek may well adhere to the sanctity of these moral principles without thereby thinking that they are made sacred because of their reliance on natural rights. Mises himself thought that the notion of natural rights was an intellectual fiction. Or one might subscribe to these principles because one is a Christian who believes that each of us, as a child of God, is sacred. A follower of Father Robert Sirico will believe that it is a violation of God’s will to treat another human being as anything other than inherently valuable and inviolable, and that one cannot fulfill one’s Christian duty to others unless one is radically free to choose to do so. Or, finally, one might think that man’s rational autonomy presupposes allegiance to certain universal rules, among which are the principles under consideration here. A Kantian will believe he is categorically commanded to treat others as ends in themselves and never merely as means, and he might for that reason believe that the free, classical liberal society is just the Kantian “kingdom of ends.”

I would not presume to resolve here which of these foundations for believing in the principles of the free society, if any, is correct. But that is not my intent. My belief is that substantially all of us share the intuitions that suggest these principles, regardless of the specific set of background beliefs we hold that lead us to accept them. My purpose rather is to galvanize adherents to a wide array of beliefs to fight for the free society by showing them that anything beyond the minimal, libertarian state violates moral principles they already hold—whatever the basis on which they hold them.

The Virtue of Consistency

All that would remain is to remind one’s adversaries of the importance of consistency in applying these principles generally. The classical liberal society is not alien or extreme or licentious or bizarre or naïve. It is simply our own moral principles writ large; it is the manifestation and reflection of the person of dignity each of us believes himself to be.

Many years ago Hayek called on classical liberals to “make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage” and to develop a program that would at once inspire us and serve as a blueprint for us to realize freedom under law. I think that such a program must begin by appealing to our deeply held intuitions, our pre-theoretical sense of right and wrong.

It is frequently remarked in America today that voters have a deep distrust for politicians and for politics; they are cynical about the whole political system, a fact that is regularly evinced by their exceedingly low interest in finding anything out about the people running for office. One will probably not understand this distrust and cynicism until one sees the constitutional, if perhaps unconscious, libertarianism that runs through many Americans. I suspect they distrust politicians and dislike politics because they are aware on some level that almost everything that goes on in politics is a violation of moral propriety. When the government bestows largess on them, they are by and large happy to receive it; but I suspect that most of them nevertheless harbor the perhaps vague sense that there is something wrong with this state of affairs.

Even if they think that they cannot but take advantage of the government’s “free money” before someone else does, they would, if they were candid and forced themselves to reflect on the matter, admit that these are dishonorable actions. This, in part, is what stands behind Americans’ general belief that politics is a sordid affair (and that politicians are little better than moral reprobates). What is required, then, is to bring into the open exactly what makes these actions sordid and dishonorable, and to discover explicitly the close connection between people’s notions of impropriety and the libertarian principles that give rise to them.

One way to begin this process of discovery is to get people who spend their time thinking about moral and political issues on a philosophical level—like philosophy professors—to begin to focus their mental energy on the philosophical underpinnings of the free society. The hope is that more and more of them will come to see the classical liberal conception of society as a compelling manifestation of some of their own fundamental moral beliefs, and, further, that they will then teach it to their students. In this way one might get people who are already prone to intellectual investigations to become intrigued with the strong intellectual appeal of the free society and to replace their perhaps present desire for a socialist utopia with a desire for a classical liberal utopia.

The free society is worth fighting for, and even a person in a tiny corner of human life—a person in academic philosophy, for example—can take up the cause of liberty and make a difference. The strategy I have outlined here can be an effective way to make people within academic philosophy open to the power of classical liberalism, but it can also, I believe, bear fruit with people outside philosophy. It can thus be a first step toward answering Hayek’s call. I commend it to you.

This article has been published with FEE‘s permission and has been originally published at The Freeman March 1999 • Volume: 49 • Issue: 3.

Home School Heroes

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 from an essay first published in the February 1997 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”

Of all the ingredients in the recipe for education, which one has the greatest potential to improve student performance?

No doubt the teachers unions would put higher salaries for their members at the top of the list, to which almost every reformer might reply, “Been there, done that.” Teacher compensation has soared in recent decades at the same time every indicator of student performance has plummeted.

Other answers include smaller class size, a longer school year, more money for computers, or simply more money for fill-in-the- blank. The consensus of hundreds of studies over the past several years is that these factors exhibit either no positive correlation with better student performance or show only a weak connection. On this important question, the verdict is in and it is definitive: The one ingredient that makes the most difference in how well and how much children learn is parental involvement.

When parents take a personal interest in the education of their children, several things happen. The child gets a strong message that education is important to success in life; it isn’t something that parents dump in someone else’s lap. Caring, involved parents usually instill a love of learning in their children—a love that translates into a sense of pride and achievement as knowledge is accumulated and put to good use. Time spent with books goes up and time wasted in the streets goes down.

American parents were once responsible for educating their children. Until the late nineteenth century, the home, the church, and a small nearby school were the primary centers of learning for the great majority of Americans. In most Southern states before the Civil War, it was illegal under state laws for blacks to be educated, but many people (both black and white) provided education in secret defiance, producing a remarkably high literacy rate among oppressed blacks.

In more recent times, many American parents have largely abdicated this responsibility, in favor of the experts in the compulsory public school system. According to a 1996 report from Temple University in Pennsylvania, nearly one in three parents was seriously disengaged from their children’s education. The Temple researchers found that about one-sixth of all students believed their parents don’t care whether they earn good grades and nearly one-third said their parents had no idea how they are doing in school.

If anything has changed since 1996, it’s more likely to be in the wrong direction. The bitter fruit of a century of Americans “educated” to believe that education is a government job is now being harvested. And literacy and graduation rates in government schools in inner cities like Detroit are now so bad one can’t help but wonder if they’d be better if education were simply made illegal.

Amid the sorry state of American education today are heroes who are rescuing children in a profoundly personal way. They are the homeschoolers—parents who sacrifice time and income to teach their children themselves. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parental involvement.

Teaching children at home isn’t for everyone and no one advocates that every parent try it. There are plenty of good schools—many private and some government (“public”)—that are doing a better job than some parents could do for their own children. But the fact is that homeschooling is working—and working surprisingly well—for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.

That fact is all the more remarkable when one considers that these dedicated parents must juggle teaching with all the other demands and chores of modern life. Also, they get little or nothing back from what they pay in taxes for a public system they don’t patronize.

“The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007,” reports USA Today—“up 74% from when the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track in 1999, and up 36% since 2003.” USA Today says that “the percentage of the school-age population that was home-schooled increased from 2.2% in 2003 to 2.9% in 2007.” Those are still small numbers compared to government school enrollment, but they are up from a mere 15,000 in the early 1980s.

Parents who home school do so for a variety of reasons. Some want a strong moral or religious emphasis in their children’s education. Others are fleeing unsafe government schools or schools where discipline and academics have taken a backseat to fuzzy feel-good or politically correct dogma. Many home school parents complain about the pervasiveness in government schools of trendy instructional methods that border on pedagogical malpractice.

Home school parents are fiercely protective of their constitutional right to educate their children. In early 1994, the House of Representatives voted to mandate that all teachers—including parents in the home—acquire state certification in the subjects they teach. A massive campaign of letters, phone calls, and faxes from homeschoolers produced one of the most stunning turnabouts in legislative history: By a vote of 424 to 1, the House reversed itself and then approved an amendment that affirmed the rights and independence of home school parents.

Critics have long harbored a jaundiced view of parents who educate children at home. They argue that children need the guidance of professionals and the social interaction that come from being with a class of others. Homeschooled children, these critics say, will be socially and academically stunted by the confines of the home. But the facts suggest otherwise.

A 1990 report by the National Home Education Research Institute showed that homeschooled children score in the 80th percentile or higher, meaning that they scored better than 80 percent of other students in math, reading, science, language, and social studies. Reports from state after state show homeschoolers scoring significantly better than the norm on college entrance examinations. Prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale, accept homeschooled children eagerly and often. Homeschooled children make headlines regularly as winners of spelling bees and for other impressive academic achievements.

And there’s simply no evidence that homeschooled children (with a rare exception) make anything but fine, solid citizens who respect others and work hard as adults. Have you ever heard anyone say, after a riot or a drug bust or a rowdy post-game altercation, “Oh, there go the homeschoolers again!”?

Homeschool parents approach their task in a variety of ways. While some discover texts and methods as they go, others plan their work well before they start, often assisted by other homeschoolers or associations that have sprung up to aid those who choose this option. Common to every homeschool parent is the belief that the education of their children is too important to hand over to someone else.

Writing in the July 1996 issue of Reason magazine, Britton Manasco argues that the growth of CD-ROMs, Internet services, and computerized educational networks is likely to make homeschooling even more attractive to parents. For a tiny fraction of what a printed version might cost, one software publisher is offering a classic books program that incorporates more than 3,500 unabridged literary works, complete with hundreds of video clips and illustrations. A support group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, provides inexpensive on-line help, resources, and evaluations for thousands of homeschool children worldwide. Another organization links first-rate instructors and homeschool students from all over the country via computer in a college preparatory program that includes a core curriculum for about $250 per course.

In every other walk of life, Americans traditionally regard as heroes the men and women who meet challenges head-on, who go against the grain and persevere to bring a dream to fruition. At a time when more troubles and shortcomings plague education and educational heroes are too few in number, recognizing the homeschool heroes in our midst may be both long overdue and highly instructive.

Bogus Freedom

By James Bovard

James Bovard is the author of “Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen” (St. Martin’s, 1999), from which this article is adapted.

“Freedom from want” is one of the most frequently invoked notions of freedom in our time. However, it is a bogus freedom that politicians and socialists offer to lull people into accepting policies that destroy true freedom. Freedom from want has been most loudly advocated in this century by those who favored removing almost all limits from government power.

For example, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, two of the founders of British socialism and authors of The Soviet Union: A New Civilization?, asserted in 1936: “Personal freedom means, in effect, the power of the individual to buy sufficient food, shelter and clothing.”[1]

The Webbs did not specify how many millions of people government should be permitted to kill in the name of “freedom from want.” But during Stalin’s bloodiest decade, they asserted that for government economic planning to succeed, “public discussion must be suspended between the promulgation of the decision and the accomplishment of the task” and that any criticisms of the master plan should be treated as “an act of disloyalty, or even of treachery.”[2] For government to be able to liberate people with food and clothing, it must have the power to execute anyone who criticizes the official economic plan. After visiting the Ukraine, the Webbs endorsed Stalin’s war on the kulaks (the least impoverished peasants), commenting that “it must be recognized that the liquidation of the individual capitalist in agriculture had necessarily to be faced if the required increase of output was to be obtained.”[3] (Output plummeted.)

Equating liberty with satisfactory living standards became far more common as the twentieth century went on. “Real freedom means good wages, short hours, security in employment, good homes, opportunity for leisure and recreation with family and friends,” wrote Sir Oswald Mosley, the most prominent British supporter of Nazi Germany, in his 1936 book, Fascism.[4] James Gregor noted in his book The Ideology of Fascism that fascism aimed at “restraints which foster the increased effective freedom of the individual.”[5] President Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted in 1937 that “even some of our own people may wonder whether democracy can match dictatorship in giving this generation the things it wants from government.”[6] University of Chicago professor Leslie Pape noted in 1941 that “democracies readily admit the claims of totalitarian states to great achievements in the cause of positive freedom.”[7]

British historian E.H. Carr, writing in 1951, observed that, for the modern era, “freedom from the economic constraint of want was clearly just as important as freedom from the political constraint of kings and tyrants.”[8]Carr justified the array of economic controls in postwar Britain: “The price of liberty is the restriction of liberty. The price of some liberty for all is the restriction of the greater liberty of some.”[9] However, with this standard, there is no limit to the amount of freedom that government can destroy in the name of creating “greater liberty for some.” The British Labour government that Carr championed advanced freedom by conscripting labor for the coal mines and empowering the Ministry of Labour to direct workers to whatever employment was considered in the national interest—empowering over 10,000 government officials to carry out searches (including of private homes) without warrants—prohibiting restaurants from serving customer meals costing more than 5 shillings (less than $2 in 1947)—and fining farmers who refused to plant the specific crops government demanded.[10] The government also “nationalized all potential land uses in the United Kingdom, permitting only continuation of existing ones and requiring ‘planning permission’ for any others,” as law professor Gideon Kanner noted.[11]

The Labour government offered freedom via the solidarity of standing in the same rationing line—liberation via deprivation. (A 1998 New York Times article cited the Labour government’s postwar food rationing, which continued into the 1950s, as a contributing factor to the long-term decline of British cuisine.[12])

The more politicians promise to give, the more they entitle themselves to take. Carr, serving in 1945 as chairman of the UNESCO Committee on the Principles of the Rights of Man, declared that “no society can guarantee the enjoyment of such rights [to government handouts] unless it in turn has the right to call upon and direct the productive capacities of the individuals enjoying them.”[13] Thus, the price of government benefits is unlimited political control over people’s paychecks and work lives.

Once freedom is equated with a certain material standard of living, confiscation becomes the path to liberation. Thus, the more avidly a politician raises taxes, the greater his apparent love for liberty. In the name of providing “freedom from want,” the politician acquires a pretext to destroy the basis of private citizens’ independence. “Freedom from want” becomes a license for politicians, rather than a declaration of rights of citizens.

Anyone who does not have certain possessions is assumed not to be free—and in need of political rescue. President Johnson, justifying a vast expansion of government social programs, declared in 1965, “Negroes are trapped—as many whites are trapped—in inherited, gateless poverty. . . . Public and private poverty combine to cripple their capacities.”[14] Vice President Hubert Humphrey defined a poor person as “the man who for reasons beyond his control cannot help himself.” This perspective on poverty and self-help mocks all of American history. It implies that any individual who earns less than $7,890 a year (the official poverty line for a single person) is incapable of any discipline or resolution.

While advocates of positive freedom insist that government must intervene so that each person “can be all that they can be,” government aid programs are notorious for rewarding people for making the least of themselves. President Roosevelt warned in 1935 that “continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”[15] President Clinton declared in 1996: “For decades now, welfare has too often been a trap, consigning generation after generation to a cycle of dependency. The children of welfare are more likely to drop out of school, to run afoul of the law, to become teen parents, to raise their own children on welfare.”[16] A rising tide no longer lifts all boats when the government rewards people for scuttling their own ships.

Faith in freedom from want depends on a political myopia that focuses devoutly on only one side of the ledger of government action. This is measuring freedom according to how much government does for people, and totally disregarding what government does to people. Government provides “freedom” for the welfare recipient by imposing tax servitude on the worker. Federal, state, and local governments collected an average of $26,434 in taxes for every household in the country, or an average of $9,881 for every U.S. resident in 1998, according to the Tax Foundation.[17] In an age of unprecedented prosperity, government tax policies have turned the average citizen’s life into a financial struggle and insured that he will likely become a ward of the state in his last decades.

Some statists insist that taxation is irrelevant to freedom. According to sociologist Robert Goodin,

If what the rich man loses when his property is redistributed is described as a loss of freedom, then the gain to the poor must similarly be described as a gain of freedom. . . . No net loss of freedom for society as a whole, as distinct from individuals within it, is involved in redistributive taxation. Thus, there is no basis in terms of freedom . . . for objecting to it.[18]

What does Goodin mean by “freedom for society as a whole”? By this standard, slavery would not reduce a society’s freedom, since the slave’s loss of freedom would be equaled by the slave owner’s gain. Nor is there any difference, vis-à-vis freedom, between permitting people to retain their earnings and spend them as they choose, and government confiscating their money to hire more regulators, inspectors, and informants to better repress the citizenry.

What are the practical results of the modern “freedom from want”? Economist Edgar Browning, writing in 1993, examined the marginal cost of redistribution—defined as “the ratio of the aggregate loss to the top four quintiles of households to the aggregate gain to the bottom quintile of households.”[19] Browning estimated that the marginal cost to the most affluent 80 percent of households of increasing the income of the poorest 20 percent by $1 was $7.82.[20] The marginal costs of redistribution are much larger than people might presume because of reduced incentives to work, both among the taxpayers and recipients. Also, as Browning noted, “marginal tax rates must be increased very sharply relative to the amount of income that is redistributed.” Combining Browning’s analysis and Goodin’s definition, confiscatory redistribution destroys almost eight times as much “freedom” as it creates.

Once the notion of “freedom from want” is accepted as the pre-eminent freedom, it becomes a wish list justifying endless political forays deeper and deeper into people’s lives. Princeton professor Amy Gutmann, in her 1980 book, Liberal Equality, declared: “Liberal egalitarians want to say that freedom of choice is not very meaningful without a right to those goods necessary to life itself.”[21] Gutmann’s elaboration of “necessary goods” reveals how government would be obliged to control almost everything: “Supplying the poorest with more primary goods will be insufficient if their sense of self-worth or their very desire to pursue their conceptions of the good is undercut by self-doubt.”[22] By this standard, freedom is violated when people suffer self-doubt, and the government is obliged to forcibly intervene to guarantee that all people think well of themselves.

Political scientist Alan Wolfe, a self-described “welfare liberal,” asserted in 1995 that “people need a modicum of security and income maintenance, underwritten by government, in order to fulfill the ideal of negative liberty, which is self-sufficiency.”[23] Government dependency is the new, improved form of self-reliance: dependency on government doesn’t count because government is a better friend to you than you are yourself. But the more dependent people become on government, the more susceptible they are to political and bureaucratic abuse. Freedom from want is conceivable only so long as people are allowed to want only what the government thinks they should have.

Freedom from want supposedly results from government taking away what a person owns so that it can give him back what it thinks he deserves. The welfare state is either a way to force people to finance their own benefits via political-bureaucratic bagmen, or it is a way to force some people to labor for other people’s benefit. In the first case, government sacrifices the person’s freedom to the fraud that government must tax him to subsidize him; in the second, government sacrifices the person’s freedom in order to “liberate” someone else—often someone who chooses not to work. If someone pays the taxes that finance the government benefits he receives, he is less free than he would otherwise have been.

Some “freedom from want” advocates imply that government is a great benefactor when it promises citizens “three hots and a cot”—the old-time recruiting slogan of the Marine Corps. But trading freedom for a full belly is a worse bargain now than ever before. As economist F.A. Hayek observed, “As the result of the growth of free markets, the reward of manual labor has during the past hundred and fifty years experienced an increase unknown in any earlier period in history.”[24] The average worker in industrialized countries can purchase the bare necessities of life with fewer hours of labor than ever before. Comparing current wages and prices with those of 1800, economist Julian Simon found that the average American worker today needs to labor less than one-tenth the time to earn enough to purchase a bushel of wheat than his predecessors did two centuries ago.[25] While the real price of food has plummeted (in spite of government farm policies), the “real price” of political servitude has not diminished.

It is understandable that some well-intentioned people assume that “freedom from want” is the most important freedom. It is difficult for many people to conceive of enjoying anything (much less their freedom) if they lack food, clothing, or shelter. However, freedom is not a guarantee of prosperity for every citizen; the fact that some people have meager incomes does not prove that they are shackled. It is a cardinal error to confuse freedom with the things that free individuals can achieve or produce, and then to sacrifice the reality of freedom in a deluded shortcut to the bounty of freedom. Freedom is not measured by how much a person possesses, but by the restrictions and shackles under which he lives.

Throughout history, politicians have used other people’s property to buy themselves power. That is the primary achievement of the welfare state. The danger of government handouts to freedom was clear to some political writers hundreds of years ago. The French writer Etienne de la Boétie, in his 1577 Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, noted of ancient Rome: “Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine . . . and then everybody would shamelessly cry, ‘Long live the King!’ The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.”[26]

“Freedom from want” is not possible unless the government is allowed to control all things people want. Americans must beware of Trojan-horse definitions of freedom—definitions that, once accepted, allow bureaucrats to take over everyone’s life. Government handouts insinuate political power into the deepest recesses of a person’s life. And when the time is ripe, politicians take command where they previously lavished their gifts.


Notes

  1. Quoted in Fritz Machlup, “Liberalism and the Choice of Freedoms,” in Roads to Freedom: Essays in Honour of Friedrich A. von Hayek, Erich Streissler, ed. (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1969), p. 126.
  2. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), pp. 1038–39.
  3. Ibid., vol. 1., p. 547.
  4. Quoted in Dorothy Fosdick, What is Liberty? A Study in Political Theory (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939), p. 28.
  5. James Gregor, The Ideology of Fascism (New York: Free Press, 1969), p. 212.
  6. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937 (New York: Macmillan, 1941), p. 361.
  7. Leslie M. Pape, “Some Notes on Democratic Freedom,” Ethics, April 1941, p. 26.
  8. Edward Hallett Carr, The New Society (London: Macmillan, 1951), p. 107.
  9. Ibid., p. 108.
  10. John Jewkes, The New Ordeal by Planning (New York: St. Martin’s, 1968; based on his 1948 book), p. 213.
  11. Gideon Kanner, “Tennis Anyone?,” California Political Review, March-April 1998, p. 17.
  12. William Grimes, “History Explains Disparity Between English and French Cuisine,” New York Times, May 9, 1998.
  13. Quoted in F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 2, The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 184.
  14. Quoted in Marvin Gettleman and David Mermelstein, eds., The Great Society Reader (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 256.
  15. Quoted in “The Welfare Bill: Excerpts from Debate in the Senate on the Welfare Measure,” New York Times, August 2, 1996.
  16. “Radio Address of the President,” Office of the Press Secretary, White House, December 7, 1996.
  17. “Total Tax Collections to Reach $2.667 Trillion in 1998, Tax Foundation Says,” Tax Notes Today, June 11, 1998.
  18. Robert Goodin, Reasons for Welfare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 313.
  19. Edgar Browning, “The Marginal Cost of Redistribution,” Public Finance Quarterly, January 1993, p. 3.
  20. Ibid., p. 3.
  21. Amy Gutmann, Liberal Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 8.
  22. Ibid., p. 123.
  23. Alan Wolfe, Review of Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy, by Stephen Holmes,New Republic, May 1, 1995.
  24. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 1, Rules and Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 24.
  25. Julian Simon, “What the Starvation Lobby Eschews,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1996.
  26. Etienne de la Boétie, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Murray Rothbard, ed. (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975), p. 70.

This article has been published with FEE‘s permission and has been originally published at The Freeman May 1999 • Volume: 49 • Issue: 5.

Grover Cared

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 from an essay first published in the March 2006 issue of National Review Online. The disaster in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina occurred the previous August.

The year 1887 was a tough year in Texas. Day after day brought hot, dry winds that parched the land. Farmers saw their crops wither and their cattle grow weak from thirst. Spirits faltered as desperate Texans prayed for rain, seemingly to no avail. Eager to help (at least with other people’s money), congressmen pushed through a bill to provide federal aid in the form of seed, but one man stood in their way—America’s 22nd president, Grover Cleveland. At a time when the federal budget boasted a large surplus, he vetoed the bill.

What kind of man could say no to free seed for his salt-of-the-earth brethren in distress? Was Cleveland, son of a Presbyterian minister, a cold, cruel and heartless Scrooge? Could this be the same man who once taught at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind and cultivated a passionate, lifelong devotion to helping the sightless?

Yes indeed, one and the same. But the president was no mean-spirited miser. He simply knew what almost no one in Congress today understands: He knew the decisive difference between government and everything else. If he were alive to witness the tragic antics of Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he might be sorely tempted to say, “I told you so.”

A federal bureaucracy that shells out $438 per night to house New Orleans evacuees in a Manhattan hotel, blows $300 million on trailers that sit and rot many miles away from the intended recipients, stymies help from the Red Cross and other government departments, doles out $2,000 debit cards to just about anybody who needs a tattoo and a massage, and runs ice trucks to every corner of the country except where the ice is needed: These are not the fruit of the allegedly insensitive, laissez-faire 1880s. They are the product of our “compassionate” and gargantuan government, for which every need is an excuse to spend, grow, politicize and subsume.

In his veto of the Texas Seed Bill, Cleveland warned against a general disregard of the “limited mission” of the federal government. He didn’t think Congress or the president should torture the Constitution until it confessed that disaster relief was among the responsibilities of Washington, D.C. He felt that the country should heed the time-honored lesson that, as he put it, “Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”

The welfare-statists of our time have saddled us with $8 trillion in debt, a federal tax burden seven or eight times that of Cleveland’s day, and a legacy of handout programs that have yielded little more than dependency and dysfunctional families. Billions in corporate welfare have exacted a similar toll on American enterprise. Cleveland tried to tell us that government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody, and that a government big enough to give us everything we want is big enough to take away everything we’ve got. But somewhere along the way we fooled ourselves into thinking that government can help our brothers and sisters better, more quickly, and more cheaply than we can help them ourselves. What a sorry mess of pottage we’ve mortgaged our children’s future for.

Nonetheless, Americans are still the most generous charity givers on the planet. The best evidence that we haven’t entirely lost the instincts Cleveland appealed to is the fact that when Americans want to donate money to help others, they don’t make their checks out to FEMA or any other government agency.

Cleveland didn’t say no to drought relief because he thought hurting farmers didn’t deserve relief. He urged Americans in general and members of Congress in particular to give from their own hearts and personal resources. His veto message noted, “The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune.” Aid from Washington, D.C., he wrote, only “encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”

Those farmers in Texas got their aid, all right—as much as 10 times or more in private assistance as the amount that Cleveland refused to launder first through a federal bureaucracy.

Just six years before in another example of monumental generosity, Americans came to the rescue of their fellow citizens through private means. In 1881, Clara Barton mobilized her newly formed American Red Cross in its first major disaster-relief effort, pouring a gusher of money, food, clothes and volunteers into Michigan after a raging fire destroyed much of four counties. American history is replete with similar stories of people helping people in the absence of largesse from Washington, D.C.

As the Katrina recovery continues, the federal government will do what the federal government does best. It will talk, squawk, and pontificate. It will hold hearings, point fingers, and proclaim its good intentions. It will learn nothing and change little, for that is the nature of the beast and a big reason our Founders wanted it kept small and constrained in the first place. It will, as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s cronies once said, “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.”

I suspect that meanwhile, in spite of the mind-numbing hurdles that big government puts in their way, the real heroes will be quiet folks who help their fellow citizens by what they give and by what they build. Grover Cleveland told us we could count on them because they, at least, have never let us down.

Scandal at the Welfare State

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. His recently edited volume “Commerce and Morality” was just published by Rowman and Littlefield, and he is now working on a book titled “Public Realms and Private Rights” for the Independent Institute of San Francisco.

There is much talk these days about government corruption. Scandals abound and usually involve special benefits obtained by organizations from local, state, or federal governments. Government officials are accused of playing favorites as they carry out their duties. They are charged with accepting gifts or campaign contributions in return for giving supporters special treatment.

But there is reason to believe that the more obvious improprieties are merely routine behavior carried out somewhat ineptly. In other words, it is very doubtful that politics in our society involves anything more noble than playing favorites, serving special interests—and neglecting what could be reasonably construed as the true public interest.

Although the distinction between the public and the private interest is quite meaningful, the democratic welfare state totally obscures it. Such a system favors majority role regarding any concern that some member of the public might have (if it can be brought to public attention). It treats everyone’s project as a candidate for public support. And, of course, most every person or group has different objectives. Thus, so long as these objectives can be advanced by political means, they can gain the honorific status of “the public interest.”

It is noteworthy that this may be the result of what Professor Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University has called a strong democracy—a political system that subjects all issues of public concern to a referendum. This approximation of strong democracy—where, for example, just wanting to add a porch to one’s home must be cleared with the representatives of the electorate—has produced our enormous “welfare” state. Yet it was just this prospect that the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to avoid. That in part accounted for their insistence on a Bill of Rights, namely, on denying to government-democratic, monarchical, or whatever—the kind of powers that strong democracy entails.

To see how confusing things have become in this kind of strong democracy/welfare state, consider a few current topics of “public concern.” Take, for example, wilderness preservation, an issue that appeals to many and cannot be considered a bad example—environmentalists who favor interventionist policies certainly believe that government preservation of wilderness areas is in the public interest.

Yet it is not unreasonable to suppose that many people do not have the wilderness as their top priority. Sure, they might like and even benefit from some of it. But in the main, they might prefer having at least part of the wilderness given up in favor of, say, housing development which might better suit their needs.

Or take all those Ralph Nader-type crusades for absolutely safe automobiles, risk-free medical research, and the banning of genetic experiments. Mr. Nader is the paragon of the so-called public-minded citizen, presumably without a self-interested bone in his body. Whatever his motives, however, his concerns quite legitimately are not shared by many citizens—.g., those who would prefer more powerful, maneuverable automobiles that can quickly get out of tight spots. These people might well lead better lives without all this worry about safety—they might be good drivers for whom Nader’s concern about safety is superfluous.

Jeremy Rifkin, a Nader type who would ban all genetic experimentation, is another of those who bill themselves as public interest advocates, presumably without a tinge of self- or vested interest to their names. But such persons in fact serve quite particular interests. These and similar-minded individuals clearly do not favor the general public. They favor, instead, some members of it. The rest can fend for themselves when Mr. Rifkin and others gain the political upper hand.

The point is that when government does so much—in behalf of virtually anyone who can gain political power or savvy—it is difficult to tell when it is serving the true public interest. Everyone is pushing an agenda on the government in support of this or that special interest group.

There is under such a system hardly any bona fide public service at all. In this case, laws often serve a private or special purpose—.g., smoking bans in restaurants, prohibition of gambling, mandatory school attendance, business regulations that serve the goals of some but not of others. Such a bloated conception of the “public” realm even undermines the integrity of our judicial system. Courts adjudicating infractions of such special interest laws become arms of a private crusade, not servants of the public.

An Erosion of Confidence

One consequence of this is that confidence in the integrity of government officials at every level, even those engaged in the essential functions of government, is becoming seriously eroded. The police, defense, and judicial functions all are suffering because government has become over-extended.

As government grows beyond its legitimate functions, scandals become the norm. They certainly should not be surprising. They merely represent the more obviously inept ways of trying to get the government to do your own private, special bidding.

It is all just a matter of getting your part of the pie out of Washington—whether it be day care for your children, a monument to your favorite subjects, help to unwed mothers, support of faltering corporations, or protection of the textile industry from foreign competition. Everyone wants to get the government on his side. Some people do this in ways that make it all appear on the up and up. They hire the necessary legal help to navigate the complicated catacombs of the welfare state. Others aren’t so adept.

In such a climate it is actually quite surprising that not more scandals erupt. Probably that is due to even more corruption—in this case cover-ups.

Were government doing something more nearly within its range of expertise—protecting individual rights from domestic and foreign threats—some measure of ethical behavior could be expected from it. But when, despite all the failures and mismanagement of government, people continue to go to it to ask for bailouts, why be surprised when some do it more directly, without finesse? And why wonder at their claim, when caught seeking favors openly and blatantly, that they are innocent?

In light of this, an old adage gains renewed support: the majority of people get just the kind of government they deserve. It is they who clamor for state favors by dishonestly calling their objectives the “public” interest. Notice how many look to political candidates for future favors, how many support this or that politician because they expect something in return once the political office has been gained. Unfortunately, many of us who choose not to play the political game have the results imposed on us in the form of higher taxes and more burdensome regulations.

It may be surprising, after all this, that there are certain matters which are of genuine public interest the Founding Fathers had a clear idea of the public interest, as have most classical liberals. The public interest amounts to what is in everyone’s best interest as a member of the community—the defense of individual fights from domestic and foreign aggression. Here is where our individual human rights unite us into a cohesive public, with a common interest. We are justified in establishing a government, with its massive powers, only if this is our goal to protect and maintain the public interest so understood.

Once we expand the scope of the public in effect make the concept “public” quite meaningless the powers of the state get involved in tasks that serve only some of the people, and often at the expense of other people. And that simply breeds bad government—whether hidden, by phony legislation and regulation, or by means of out- and-out corruption and subsequent scandal.

It is therefore not surprising that the welfare state is so susceptible to misconduct. The lesson we ought to take away is that the scope of government should be reduced to proper proportions—the defense of individual rights.

This article has been published with FEE‘s permission and has been originally published at The Freeman March 1989 • Volume: 39 • Issue: 3.

Of Meat and Myth

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 from an essay first published in the November 1994 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”

Advocates of the spontaneous order of freedom and free markets are forever stomping out the fires of fallacious reasoning, anti-capitalist bias, and twisted history. It seems that as soon as we put out one fire, opponents of the market manage to ignite ten others.

We spend as much time explaining the workings of the market as we do debunking myths and clichés about it. Statists and interventionists spout an endless stream of put-downs and one-liners that pass as thorough critiques of the market, each one requiring a time-consuming, painstaking response and appeal to reason. We are constantly rewriting prejudiced accounts of history to match what really happened.

Nearly ninety years ago (note: now 105 years ago), muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair wrote a book titled The Jungle which wove a tale of greed and abuse that reverberates to this day as a powerful case against laissez faire. Sinclair’s focus of scorn was the meatpacking industry. The objective of his effort was government regulation. The culmination of his work was the passage in 1906 of the famed Meat Inspection Act, enshrined in most history books as a sacred cow (excuse the pun) of the interventionist state.

Were Sinclair’s allegations of a corrupt industry foisting unhealthy products on an unsuspecting public really true? And if so, should the free market stand forever indicted and convicted as a result? A response from advocates of freedom is long overdue. Here’s a healthy start.

The Jungle was, first and foremost, a novel. It was intended to be a polemic—a diatribe, if you will and not a well-researched and dispassionate documentary. Sinclair relied heavily on both his own imagination and on the hearsay of others. He did not even pretend to have actually witnessed the horrendous conditions he ascribed to Chicago packinghouses, nor to have verified them, nor to have derived them from any official records.

Sinclair hoped the book would ignite a powerful socialist movement on behalf of America’s workers. The public’s attention was directed instead to his fewer than a dozen pages of supposed descriptions of unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking plants. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he later wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” [1]

Though his novelized and sensational accusations prompted later congressional investigations of the industry, the investigators themselves expressed skepticism of Sinclair’s integrity and credibility as a source of information. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Sinclair in a letter to William Allen White in July 1906, “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.” [2]

Sinclair’s fellow writer and philosophical intimate, Jack London, wrote this announcement of The Jungle, a promo that was approved by Sinclair himself:

Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.

And take notice and remember, comrades, this book is straight proletarian. It is written by an intellectual proletarian, for the proletarian. It is to be published by a proletarian publishing house. It is to be read by the proletariat. What Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the black slaves The Jungle has a large chance to do for the white slaves of today. [3]

The Jungle’s fictitious characters tell of men falling into tanks in meatpacking plants and being ground up with animal parts, then made into “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.” Historian Stewart H. Holbrook writes, “The grunts, the groans, the agonized squeals of animals being butchered, the rivers of blood, the steaming masses of intestines, the various stenches . . . were displayed along with the corruption of government inspectors” [4] and, of course, the callous greed of the ruthless packers.

Most Americans would be surprised to know that government meat inspection did not begin in 1906. The inspectors Holbrook refers to as being mentioned in Sinclair’s book were among hundreds employed by federal, state, and local governments for more than a decade. Indeed, Congressman E. D. Crumpacker of Indiana noted in testimony before the House Agriculture Committee in June 1906 that not even one of those officials “ever registered any complaint or [gave] any public information with respect to the manner of the slaughtering or preparation of meat or food products” [5]

To Crumpacker and other contemporary skeptics, “Either the Government officials in Chicago [were] woefully derelict in their duty, or the situation over there [had been] outrageously over- stated to the country.” [6] If the packing plants were as bad as alleged in The Jungle, surely the government inspectors who never said so must be judged as guilty of neglect as the packers were of abuse.

Some two million visitors came to tour the stockyards and packinghouses of Chicago every year. Thousands of people worked in both. Why is it that it took a novel written by an anti-capitalist ideologue who spent but a few weeks there to unveil the real conditions to the American public?

All of the big Chicago packers combined accounted for less than 50 percent of the meat products produced in the United States; few if any charges were ever made against the sanitary conditions of the packinghouses of other cities. If the Chicago packers were guilty of anything like the terribly unsanitary conditions suggested by Sinclair, wouldn’t they be foolishly exposing themselves to devastating losses of market share?

Historians with an ideological axe to grind against the market usually ignore an authoritative 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry. Its investigators provided a point-by-point refutation of the worst of Sinclair’s allegations, some of which they labeled as” willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact,” “atrocious exaggeration,” and “not at all characteristic.” [7]

Instead, some of these same historians dwell on the Neill-Reynolds Report of the same year because it at least tentatively supported Sinclair. It turns out that neither Neill nor Reynolds had any experience in the meatpacking business and spent a grand total of two and one-half weeks in the spring of 1906 investigating and preparing what turned out to be a carelessly-written report with preconceived conclusions.

Gabriel Kolko, a socialist but nonetheless an historian with a respect for facts, dismisses Sinclair as a propagandist and assails Neill and Reynolds as “two inexperienced Washington bureaucrats who freely admitted they knew nothing” [8] of the meatpacking process. Their own subsequent testimony revealed that they had gone to Chicago with the intention of finding fault with industry practices so as to get a new inspection law passed. [9]

As popular myth would have it, there were no government inspectors before Congress acted in response to The Jungle and the greedy meatpackers fought federal inspection all the way. The truth is that not only did government inspection exist, but meatpackers themselves supported it and were in the forefront of the effort to extend it!

When the sensational accusations of The Jungle became worldwide news, foreign purchases of American meat were cut in half and the meatpackers looked for new regulations to give their markets a calming sense of security. The only congressional hearings on what ultimately became the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 were held by Congressman James Wadsworth’s Agriculture Committee between June 6 and 11. A careful reading of the deliberations of the Wadsworth committee and the subsequent floor debate leads inexorably to one conclusion: Knowing that a new law would allay public fears fanned by The Jungle, bring smaller competitors under regulation, and put a newly laundered government stamp of approval on their products, the major meatpackers strongly endorsed the proposed act and only quibbled over who should pay for it.

In the end, Americans got a new federal meat inspection law. The big packers got the taxpayers to pick up the entire $3 million price tag for its implementation as well as new regulations on their smaller competitors, and another myth entered the annals of anti-market dogma.

To his credit, Upton Sinclair actually opposed the law because he saw it for what it really was—a boon for the big meatpackers. [10] Far from being a crusading and objective truth-seeker, Sinclair was a fool and a sucker who ended up being used by the very industry he hated.

Myths die hard.

What you’ve just read is not at all “politically correct.” But defending the market from historical attack begins with explaining what really happened. Those who persist in the shallow claim that The Jungle stands as a compelling indictment of the market should clean up their act because upon inspection, there seems to be an unpleasant odor hovering over it.

(An extended version of this essay, with additional information on Sinclair’s activities in the decades after publication of his book, was published in 2006 by Liberty magazine and is accessible here: http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2006_08/reed-meat.html.

Endnotes

1.     Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (Chicago: Quadtrangle Books, 1967), p. 103.

2.   Roosevelt to William Allen White, July 31, 1906, Elting E. Morison and John M. Blum, editors, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951- 54), vol. 5, p. 340.

3.   Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The United States, 19001925; vol. 2: America Finding Herself (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), p. 473.

4.   Stewart H. Holbrook, The Age of the Moguls (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953), pp. 1 I0-11 I.

5.   U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Agriculture, Hearings on the So-called “Beveridge Amendment” to the Agriculture Appropriation Bill, 59th Congress, 1st Session, 1906, p. 194.

6.   Ibid.

7.   Ibid., pp. 346-350.

8.   Kolko, p. 105.

9.   Hearings, p. 102.

10.   Upton Sinclair, “The Condemned-Meat Industry: A Reply to Mr. J, Ogden Armour,” Everybody’s Magazine, XIV, 1906, pp. 612-613.