The Impossibility of Imposed Freedom by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. This
talk was delivered, at the request of Congressman Ron Paul, to staff aides of the US House of Representatives in Washington,
DC, on December 8, 2005.
It has been decades since legislatures have struck out daringly in some new and uncharted
territory of social and economic management. For the most part, in the US, Europe, Russia, China, and Latin America, legislatures
are constantly at work reforming the systems they created in the past rather than embarking on totally new ventures.
what are they working to reform? Sectors of governance that are not operating as they should due to dislocations, expense,
perceived violations of fairness or some other consideration. We need only think of the financial mess of Medicare and Medicaid,
the wholesale crookery of Social Security, the looming dangers of the Alternative Minimum Tax, the unending mess of crisis
management, among a thousand other problems in every area of society over which government presumes some responsibility.
same is true in Western Europe, where there is widespread knowledge that the welfare rolls are too large, that unions exercise
too much power, that regulations on enterprise have crippled growth in country after country. Interest groups continue to
stop progress toward liberty, but progress is being made on the level of ideology. More large steps towards socialism are
not being contemplated, and for this we can be thankful.
The main debate in our time thus concerns the direction and
pace of reform towards market economics. This is all to the good, and yet I would like to highlight what strikes me as a great
confusion. The reformers here and abroad are widely under the impression that the liberty they seek for their societies can
be imposed in much the way that socialist systems of old were imposed. The idea is that if Congress, the president, and the
courts would just get hip to the program, they could fix what’s wrong with the country in a jiffy. Thus we need only
elect liberty minded politicians, support a president trained in the merit of market incentives, and confirm judges who know
all about the Chicago School of Economics.
It cannot be, and I predict that if we continue to go down the path, we
will replace one bad form of central planning with another. Genuine liberty is not just another form of government management.
It means the absence of government management. It is this theme that I would like to pursue further.
I can present
my own perspective on this up front: all reform in all areas of politics, economics, and society should be in one direction:
toward more freedom for individuals and less power for government. I will go further to say that individuals ought to enjoy
as much freedom as possible and government as little power as possible.
Yes, that position qualifies me as a libertarian.
But I fear that this word does not have the explanatory power that it might have once had. There is in Washington a tendency
to see libertarianism as a flavor of public-policy soda, or just another grab bag of policy proposals, ones that emphasize
free enterprise and personal liberties as opposed to bureaucratic regimentation.
This perspective is seriously flawed,
and it has dangerous consequences. Imagine if Moses had sought the advice of Washington policy experts when seeking some means
of freeing the Jewish people from Egyptian captivity.
They might have told him that marching up to the Pharaoh and
telling him to "let my people go" is highly imprudent and pointless. The media won’t like it and it is asking for too
much too fast. What the Israelites need is a higher legal standing in the courts, more market incentives, more choices made
possible through vouchers and subsidies, and a greater say in the structure of regulations imposed by the Pharaoh. Besides,
Mr. Moses, to cut and run is unpatriotic.
Instead Moses took a principled position and demanded immediate freedom from
all political control – a complete separation between government and the lives of the Israelites. This is my kind of
libertarian. Libertarianism is more correctly seen not as a political agenda detailing a better method of governance. It is
instead the modern embodiment of a radical view that stands apart from and above all existing political ideologies.
doesn't propose any plan for reorganizing government; it calls for the plan to be abandoned. It doesn't propose that market
incentives be employed in the formulation of public policy; it rather hopes for a society in which there is no public policy
as that term in usually understood.
If this idea sounds radical and even crazy today, it would not have sounded so
to 18th-century thinkers. The hallmark of Thomas Jefferson’s theory of politics – drawn from John Locke and the
English liberal tradition, which in turn derived it from a Continental theory of politics that dates to the late Middle Ages
at the birth of modernity itself – is that freedom is a natural right. It precedes politics and it precedes the state.
The natural right to freedom need not be granted or earned or conferred. It need only be recognized as fact. It is something
that exists in the absence of a systematic effort to take it away. The role of government is neither to grant rights nor to
offer them some kind of permission to exist, but to restrain from violating them.
The liberal tradition of the 18th
century and following observed that it was government that has engaged in the most systematic efforts to rob people of their
natural rights – the right to life, liberty, and property – and this is why the state must exist only with the
permission of the people and be strictly limited to performing only essential tasks. To this agenda was this movement wholly
and completely committed.
The idea of the American Revolution was not to fight for certain rights to be given or imposed
on the people. It was not for a positive form of liberty to be imposed on society. It was purely negative in its ideological
outlook. It sought to end the oppression, to clip the chains, to throw off the yoke, to set people free. It sought an end
to governance by the state and a beginning to governance by people in their private associations.
For a demonstration
of how this operated in practice, we need not look any further than the Articles of Confederation, which had no provisions
for a substantive central government at all. This is usually considered its failing. We should give the revolutionaries more
credit than that. The Articles was the embodiment of a radical theory that asserted that society does not need any kind of
social management. Society is held together not by a state but by the cooperative daily actions of its members.
nation needed no Caesar, nor president, nor single will to bring about the blessings of liberty. Those blessings flow from
liberty itself, which, as American essayist Benjamin Tucker wrote, is the mother, not the daughter of order. This principle
was illustrated well during the whole of the Colonial Era and in the years before the Constitution.
But we need not
look back that far to see how liberty is a self-organizing principle. In millions of privately owned subdivisions around the
country, communities have managed to create order out of a property-rights–based liberty, and the residents would have
it no other way. In their private lives and as members of private communities, it may appear that they have seceded from government.
The movement to gated communities has been condemned across the political spectrum but evidently consumers disagree with their
assessment. The market has provided a form of security that the government has failed to provide.
Another example of
the capacity of people to organize themselves through trade and exchange is shown in modern technological innovations. The
web is largely self-organizing, and some communities of commerce such as eBay have become larger and more expansive than entire
countries once were. Firms such as Microsoft or Sun Microsystems are themselves communities of self-organizing individuals,
operating under rules and enforcements that are largely private.
The innovations available to us in our times are so
astonishing that our times have been called revolutionary, and truly they are. But in what sense has government contributed
to it? I recall a few years ago that the Post Office suggested that it provide people email addresses, but that was a one-day
wonder, since the idea was forgotten amidst all the derisive laughter that greeted the idea.
Modern life has become
so imbued with these smaller spheres of authority – spheres of authority born of liberty – that it resembles many
aspects of the Colonial period with sectors and complexities. All the great institutions of our epoch – from huge and
innovative technology firms to retailers such as Wal-Mart to massive international charitable organizations – are organized
on the basis of voluntarism and exchange. They were not created by the state and they are not managed in their daily operations
by the state.
This imparts a lesson and a model to follow. Why not permit this successful model of liberty and order
to characterize the whole of society? Why not expand what works and eliminate what doesn’t? All that needs to happen
is for government to remove itself from the picture.
I don’t need to tell you that this is not a widely held
view. Almost anyone living and working in Washington, D.C., or in any major capital of state in the world, believes that there
is some sense in which government holds society together, makes it run, inspires greatness, makes society fair and peaceful,
and brings liberty and prosperity by enacting a set of policies.
This is a view that bypasses the liberal revolution
altogether. It borrows from the ancient world of Pharaohs and Caesars in which a person’s rights were defined and dictated
by the state, which was seen as the organic expression of the community will as embodied in its leadership class. No clean
lines of separation delimited individuals from society, state, and religion. All were seen as part of the organic unity of
the civil order.
It was this view that came to be rejected with the Christian view that the state is not the master
of the individual soul, which has infinite worth, and had no claim over the conscience. One thousand years later we began
to see how this principle was expanded. The state is not the master over property or life either. Five hundred years later
we saw the birth of economic science and the discovery of the principles of exchange and the miraculous observation that economic
laws work independently of government.
Once the ideological culture began to absorb the lesson of just how unnecessary
the state is for the functioning of society – a lesson that clearly needs to be relearned in every generation –
the liberal revolution could not be held back. Despots fell, free trade reigned, and society grew ever more rich, peaceful,
It is only natural but people who work for and in government imagine that without their efforts, only calamity
would result. But this attitude is ubiquitous today in politics. Nearly all sides of the political debate are seeking to use
government to impose their view of how society should work.
I have gotten this question: what constitutional amendment
would you favor to enact the Misesian agenda. Would you want one that forbids taxes from being raised above a certain amount,
or enacts free trade, or guarantees the freedom of contract? My answer is that if I were to wish for amendments, they would
look very much like the Bill of Rights. Major swaths of that document are ignored now. Why should we believe that a new amendment
is going to perform any better?
The problem with amendments is that they presume a government large enough and powerful
enough to enforce them, and a government that is interested more in the common good than its own good. After all, a tendency
we’ve seen over 200 years is for the whole of the Constitution to be rendered by the courts as a mandate for government
to intervene, not a restriction on its ability to intervene. Why do we believe that our pet amendment would be treated any
What we need is not more things for government to do, but fewer and fewer until the point where genuine
liberty can thrive. Speaking of the Constitution, the grounds on which it was approved was not that it would create the conditions
of liberty; it was rather that it would restrain government in its unrelenting tendency to take away the people’s liberties.
Its benefit was purely negative: it would restrain the state. The positive good it would do would consist entirely in letting
society thrive and grow and develop on its own.
In short, the Constitution did not impose American liberty, contrary
to what children are taught today. Instead, it permitted the liberty that already existed to continue to exist and even be
more secure against despotic encroachments. Somehow this point has been lost on the current generation, and, as a result,
we are learning all the wrong lessons from our founding and other history.
If we come to believe that the Constitution
gave us liberty, we become very confused by the role of the US in the history of the world. Too many people see the US as
the possessor of the political equivalent of the Midas touch. It can go into any country with its troops and bring American
prosperity to them.
What is rarely considered an option these days is the old Jeffersonian vision of not imposing
liberty but simply permitting liberty to occur and develop from within society itself.
As for foreign countries, the
record that the US has in so-called "nation-building" is abysmal. In time after time, the US enters a country with its troops,
handpicks its leaders, sets up its own intrusive agencies, props up structures that people regard as tyrannous, and then we
find ourselves in shock and awe when the people complain about it.
By the way, I’m old enough to remember a time
when Republicans didn’t call critics of nation building traitors. They called them patriots. If memory serves, that
was about 10 years ago.
As dreadful as this may sound, it does seem that the US government and American political culture
are masking their fears of liberty in the name of imposing it. For truly, most political sectors in the US have a deep fear
of the consequences of just leaving things alone – laissez faire, in the old French phrase.
The left tells us
that under genuine liberty, children, the aged, and the poor would suffer abuse, neglect, discrimination and deprivation.
The right tells us that people would wallow in the abyss of immorality while foreign foes would overtake us. Economists say
that financial collapse would be inevitable, environmentalists warn of a new age of insufferable fire and ice, while public
policy experts of all sorts conjure up visions of market failures of every size and shape.
We continue to speak about
freedom in our rhetoric. Every president and legislator praises the idea and swears fealty to the idea in public statements.
But how many today believe this essential postulate of the old liberal revolution, that society can manage itself without
central design and direction? Very few. Instead people believe in bureaucracy, central banking, war and sanctions, regulations
and dictates, limitations and mandates, crisis management, and any and every means of financing all of this through taxes
and debt and the printing press.
We flatter ourselves into believing that our central planning mechanisms are imposing
not socialism but freedom itself, with Iraq as the most obvious example and the reductio ad absurdum
, all in one.
Here we have a country that the US invaded to overthrow its government and replace it with martial law administered by tanks
on the street and bombers in the air, a controlled economy complete with gasoline price controls, and handpicked political
leaders, and what do we call it? We call it freedom.
And yet some 15 years ago, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, threw out
its leaders, occupied the country and attempted to impose a new government, the US president called it an aggression that
would not stand. He took us to war to send a message that the sovereignty of states must be considered inviolate. It seems
that everyone got the message except the US.
Iraq is hardly the only country. US troops are strewn throughout the world
with the mission to bring about the conditions of freedom. Ads for military contractors emphasize the same theme, juxtaposing
hymns to liberty with pictures of tanks, bomber’s eye views of cities, and soldiers with gas masks on. Then we wonder
why so many people in the world bar the door when they hear that the US government is going to bring the blessings of democratic
freedom to their doorsteps.
We have developed some strange sense that freedom is a condition that can be imposed by
government, one of the many policy options we can pursue as experts in public policy. But it is not real freedom of the sort
described above, the kind Jefferson claimed was to be possessed by all people everywhere whose rights are not violated. Rather
it is freedom that conforms to a particular model that can be imposed from the top down, whether by the US government domestically
or by US troops internationally.
It is not only in war that we have come to believe this myth of imposed freedom. The
left imagines that by restricting the freedom of association in labor markets, it is protecting the freedom of the marginalized
to obtain jobs. But that supposed freedom is purchased at other peoples’ expense. The employer no longer has the right
to hire and fire. As a result, the freedom of contract becomes one-sided. The employee is free to contract with the employer
and quit whenever it seems right, but the employer is not free to contract on his terms and to fire whenever he sees fit.
same is true for a huge range of activities essential to our civil lives. In education, it is said that the state must impose
schooling on all children, else the parents and communities will neglect it. Only the state can make sure that no child is
left behind. The only question is the means: will we use the union and bureaucracies favored by the left, or the market incentives
and vouchers favored by the right. I don’t want to get into a debate about which means is better, but only to draw attention
to the reality that these are both forms of planning that compromise the freedom of families to manage their own affairs.
catastrophic error of the left has been to underestimate the power of free markets to generate prosperity for the masses of
people. But just as dangerous is the error of the right that markets constitute a system of social management, as if Washington
has a series of levers, one of which is labeled "market-based." If one side wants to build bigger, better bureaucracies, the
other side would rather tax and spend on contracting out government services or putting private enterprise on the payroll
as a way of harnessing the market’s power for the common good.
The first view denies the power of freedom itself
but the second view is just as dangerous because it sees freedom purely in instrumental terms, as if it were something to
be marshaled on behalf of the political establishment’s view of what constitutes the national interest.
implies a concession that it is up to the state – its managers and kept intellectuals – to decide how, when, and
where freedom is to be permitted. It further implies that the purpose of freedom, private ownership, and market incentives
is the superior management of society, that is, to allow the current regime to operate more efficiently.
had noted back in the 1950s that economists, even those favoring markets, had become "efficiency experts for the state." They
would explain how our central planners can employ market incentives to make Washington’s plans work better. This view
is now common among all people who adhere to the Chicago School of economics. They imagine that judges possess the wisdom
and power to rearrange rights in a way that perfectly accords with their view of economic efficiency.
This view also
appears in other right-wing proposals for Social Security private accounts, school vouchers, pollution trading permits, and
other forms of market-based half measures. They don’t cut the chains or throw away the yoke. They forge the steel with
different materials and readjust the yoke to make it more comfortable.
There are many examples of this awful concession
operating today. In policy circles, people use the word privatization to mean not the bowing out of government from a particular
aspect of social and economic life, but merely the contracting out of statist priorities to politically connected private
Indeed, the contracted-out state has become one of the most dangerous threats we face. A major part of
the Iraq war has been undertaken by private groups working on behalf of government agencies. Republicans have warmed to the
idea of contracting out major parts of the welfare state by putting formerly independent religious charities on the public
After the abysmal performance of FEMA after hurricane Katrina, many lawmakers suggested that Wal-Mart play
a bigger role in crisis management. The assumption here is that nothing important is happening unless government somehow blesses
the effort through a spending program that goes directly to a particular group or interest.
The worst mistake that
free-enterprise supporters can make is to sell our ideas as a better means for achieving the state’s ends. In many countries
around the world, the idea of capitalism stands discredited not because it has been tried and failed but because a false model
of capitalism was imposed from above. This is true in large parts of Eastern Europe and Russia, and also in Latin America.
Not that socialism is seen as an alternative but there is a search going on in many parts of the world for some mythical third
It doesn’t take much for the government to completely distort a market: a price control at any level, a
subsidy to an economic loser at the expense of an economic winner, a limitation or restriction or special favor. All of these
approaches can create huge problems that end up discrediting reform down the line.
Another case against partial reform
or imposed freedom was noted by Ludwig von Mises: "There is an inherent tendency in all governmental power to recognize no
restraints on its operation and to extend the sphere of its dominance as much as possible. To control everything, to leave
no room for anything to happen of its own accord without the interference of the authorities – this is the goal for
which every ruler secretly strives."
The problem he identified is how to limit the state once it becomes involved at
all. Once you permit the state to manage one aspect of a business sector, you create the conditions that eventually lead it
to manage the whole of the sector. Because of government's tendency to expand, it is better to never permit it to have any
controlling interest in economic and cultural life.
Airports and airlines are a good example. Fearing the inability
of the private sector to provide airline security – under the bizarre assumption that airlines and their passengers
have less reason then the government to care about whether they die flying – the government long managed how airlines
screen passengers and handle hijacking attempts.
The system was riddled with failure. Then the ultimate failure occurred:
9-11. But instead of backing off the system of bureaucratically administered airline security, Congress and the president
created another bureaucracy that specialized in confiscating cosmetic scissors, ripping babies out of mothers’ arms,
and otherwise slowing down airline check-in to a crawl.
The pressures of new regulations have further cartelized the
industry and made genuine market competition even more remote. And when the next catastrophe comes? We can look into our future
and see what we might have once thought to be unthinkable: the nationalization of airlines.
One objection to my thesis
is that measures to impose a form of freedom at least take us in the right direction. It's true that even a partially free
system is better than a full socialist one. And yet, partial victories are unstable. They easily fall back into full statism,
as the airline case illustrates. With US schools and pensions and health care, these privatization schemes could actually
make the present system less free by insisting on new spending to cover new expenses to provide vouchers and private accounts.
is the right thing for Washington policy experts and analysts to advocate? The only thing that government does well: nothing
at all. The proper role of government is to walk away from society, culture, economy, and the world stage of international
politics. Leave it all to manage itself. The result will not be a perfect world. But it will be a world not made worse by
the intervention of the state.
Free markets are not just about generating profits, productivity, and efficiency. They
aren’t just about spurring innovation and competition. They are about the right of individuals to make autonomous choices
and contracts, to pursue lives that fulfill their dreams even if these dreams are not approved by their government masters.
So let us not kid ourselves into thinking that we can have it both ways so that freedom and despotism live peacefully together,
the former imposed by the latter. To make a transition from statism to freedom means a complete revolution in economic and
political life, from one where the state and its interests rule, to a system where the power of the state plays no role.
Freedom is not a public-policy option and it is not a plan. It is the end of politics itself. It is time for us to take that
next step and call for precisely that. If we believe what Jefferson believed, and I think we should, it is time to speak less
like managers of bureaucracies, and more like Moses.
December 10, 2005
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com and author of Speaking of Liberty.
Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com