Friday, December 25, 2009

The Quick Trip from Freedom to Slavery

How can societies quickly and easily become subject to ruthless fascism and totalitarianism? How can leaders, who begin their political careers seeking to bring freedom, wind up imposing harsh absolutism on their nations? We find this over and over again: Robespierre in France, Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mao in China, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

There is a seductive process which turns liberty into tyranny, and which even makes people think that they're doing a good thing as they gradually remove freedom from their society. How does this happen? Perhaps an example will show us: let us take toothpaste for our pattern.

We all know that we should brush our teeth several times a day. It's healthy for us, and we will benefit from this habit over the years. In a free society, however, each person will choose whether or not he will brush his teeth, how often, and when. Nobody will force him to do it, and nobody will be forced to do it.

Personal liberty means that we are free to make bad choices (not brush our teeth), and that we will be exposed to the consequences of those choices (we will then have rotten teeth). But there exists the political temptation to save people from the consequences of their bad choices, and to try to prevent them from making those bad choices in the first place. This political temptation is so seductive because it seems that we're doing something good: we're helping people. But in fact, we are harming people, because we are taking away their individual liberty.

Imagine, then, that someone makes a law, that everybody must brush his teeth three times a day: morning, noon, and night. That's a good thing, right? Because this way we are, after all, making sure that everyone has healthy habits, right? Wrong! We are limiting personal freedom, and it gets worse: because a law is useless unless we have a way to verify that people are complying with it. We must then allow the police to enter anyone's house, with no warning or notice, to inspect that person's teeth and toothbrush. Still worse: we must then have legal actions, because a law is no good unless there are measurable consequences for violating it. We will then start fining or imprisoning people who have failed to brush their teeth in the prescribed manner.

Yes, our example is silly, but observe the principle: motivated by a desire to benefit society, we have followed the slippery slope into totalitarianism, giving rights to the government instead of to the individual.

The difficult thing about freedom is this: we must allow people to make bad choices, and to suffer under the consequences of those choices. We all know it's bad to smoke cigarettes, to borrow too much money, to drink too much alcohol, or to fail to do one's homework. It would be good if everyone avoided these mistakes. But if the government forces people to avoid these mistakes, we've removed their liberty - which is ultimately worse than the consequence of those mistakes.

On the other hand, if the government tries to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes, we again violate the principle of freedom: true liberty includes faces the all the risks of life, and occasionally falling prey to them.

Living in a truly free society isn't always pleasant: we will watch as people misuse their liberty to do unwise, unhealthy and dangerous things, and we will see them suffer the logical effects of those decisions. But if we interfere, even with good intentions, we will find that we have made the worst decision: we will have chosen to give away our freedom.