If a farmer owns some land, should he not have the right to decide whether he plants wheat or corn on it? If a butcher sells meat, should he not have the right to compete with other butchers by setting his prices as he sees fit?
In these material and mundane questions lies the core of the debate about freedom. Grand words about liberty are good and necessary, but history consists of concrete and specific actions.
Either one answers such questions in a manner which unambiguously affirms freedom, or one chooses to dismiss the very idea of freedom altogether. Do children have a lawful right to inherit the legal property of their parents?
To make a principled attack on the notion of rights, which is almost the same as attacking the notion of freedom, is indeed possible from certain moral and theological perspectives. But even from this perspective, which would deny that rights exist absolutely in the moral ontology of the universe, will allow that political rights, conceived as constructs, will be a necessary foundation to any political system which will correspond to our intuitive notion of justice.
Whether rights are understood as metaphysically real or as political constructs, the violation of, and disregard for, them is a defining feature of tyranny: from George III of England to Stalin, from Louis XIV to Mao, from Hitler to Pol Pot, from Robespierre to Castro.
Yet the bureaucrat’s incremental disassembly of rights is no less dangerous than the tyrant’s blatant breach of them. When Congress passes legislation micromanaging the farmer’s choice of which crops to grow, when the IRS confiscates property which the children of a deceased parent should inherit, or when both federal and state governments set not only maximum but also minimum prices for retail products, personal freedom is being dismembered.
Phrases like the “public interest” or the “common good” are routinely produced as justifications for infringement on the individual’s rights. It is true that many, if not all, common versions of the social contract call for either voluntary restraint regarding, or legislated limitations on, personal freedoms. It is also true that there is a natural, and evil, tendency inherent in government to expand its control over the individual beyond that which the logic of the social contract views as necessary.
It is ever inclination of government to govern more, and therefore too much. It is for this reason that the tale of Cincinnatus is not only heroic, but also almost miraculous.
Those who, by means of regulation and taxation, reduce freedom and gradually take away an individual’s rights, often do so while claiming to respect personal rights: these limitations are sadly necessary, they assert, sometimes even necessary to preserve those rights not violated by regulation. Sometimes this is done with noble intentions, sometimes with a cynical intent to grab power. Whether mouthed sincerely or insincerely, a stated belief in rights by those who violate rights has within itself, at the very least, a certain tension, if not an outright contradiction.
More coherent are those who simply deny the notion of personal rights. They argue that “rights” are fictions, and have no place in social or political calculations. Economist Friedrich Hayek writes:
In this respect much more consistency is shown by the more numerous reformers who, ever since the beginning of the socialist movement, have attacked the "metaphysical" idea of individual rights and insisted that in a rationally ordered world there will be no individual rights but only individual duties. This, indeed, has become the much more common attitude of our so-called progressives, and few things are more certain to expose one to the reproach of being a reactionary than if one protests against a measure on the grounds that it is a violation of the rights of the individual. Even a liberal paper like the Economist was a few years ago holding up to us the example of the French, of all people, who had learnt the lesson “that democratic government no less than dictatorship must always [sic] have plenary powers in posse, without sacrificing their democratic and representative character. There is no restrictive penumbra of individual rights that can never be touched by government in administrative matters whatever the circumstances. There is no limit to the power of ruling which can and should be taken by a government freely chosen by the people and can be fully and openly criticised by an opposition.
Note that Hayek describes the newspaper in question as “liberal” - reminding the reader of the long and trouble history of that word, morphing from the “classical liberals” like John Locke to the contemporary “liberals” who favor the statist program of taxation, regulation, and redistribution.
The newspaper’s use of the adverb “always” is troubling not only to Hayek. The passage in question is the newspaper’s argument for government power, which is necessarily opposed to individual liberty. The newspaper asserts that individual rights can be violated by the government at will, and there should be “no limit” to the government’s power.
Whether wittingly or not, whether sincere or cynical, the Economist has made an argument for totalitarianism. It is quite possible that the argument is both sincere and unwitting, because well-intentioned thinkers might envision a good-natured government which uses its powers only when absolutely necessary, uses them fairly and impartially, uses them in a way which respects individual freedom, and after using them, lays them down again. But those hoping for another Cincinnatus will be disappointed. It is not impossible that a Cincinnatus might appear and serve so nobly, but one cannot rely on that appearance, and certainly cannot cause it to happen.
One special case which presents the opportunity, or the temptation, for a government to make a swift attack on personal rights is the case of war. In wartime, the citizens of a nation are likely to offer less resistance to the violation of their rights, if this violation is presented as necessary to the war effort. Historians will recall Woodrow Wilson’s egregious infringement upon the First Amendment during WWI. It was clear that his restrictions on the freedom of speech were not, in many cases, in the service of the war effort, although they were presented to the public as such.
In addition to wars, governments can use any real or perceived danger as an excuse to breach rights. Floods, electrical power outages, shortages of vital consumer goods, and other special circumstances can be exploited by the government, as it tells the citizens that it must intervene to stabilize or somehow make a situation safe. To this pattern belongs the series, presented in rapid succession, of concerns about global warming, climatic instability, climate change, and climate disruption; these terms are designed to produce fear, and the fear is produced in order to persuade citizens to submit to governmental directives.
The government’s claim in this case is not entirely false. It is true that, on rare occasions, governmental intervention can produce a modest increase in safety or stability. Yet we must question the unspoken assumption that this increase is worth the cost.
Socialists governments, or other governments, can indeed increase security at the cost of personal freedom. The amount or degree of such increase is usually quite small in comparison to the amount or degree of liberty lost. A question of values arises: is the significant loss of freedom worth the modest increase in security? Slogans like “live free or die” answer that question.
Interventions labeled “necessary” during wartime will usually remain in effect during the subsequent peace. Again, men like Cincinnatus are more rare than many suppose. Hayek writes:
This may be inevitable in wartime when, of course, even free and open criticism is necessarily restricted. But the "always" in the statement quoted does not suggest that the Economist regards it as a regrettable wartime necessity. Yet as a permanent institution this view is certainly incompatible with the preservation of the Rule of Law, and it leads straight to the totalitarian state. It is, however, the view which all those who want the government to direct economic life must hold.
The best limitations on personal freedom are those imposed on an individual by himself. Maximizing political freedom does not imply maximizing moral freedom; on the contrary, moral self-restraint is necessary for political liberty. The failure of many modern, and postmodern, societies in Western Civilization is the failure that resulted from seeking political freedom without a corresponding ethical structure to guide the individual.
Freedom, in sum, is the ultimate political goal, but should never be the ultimate personal goal. In the context of a political structure, the individual’s freedom must be sought above all else. In the context of private life, self-discipline must be sought. We seek, struggle for, and fight for our freedom from the government; but once obtained, we voluntarily surrender that freedom, not to the government, but to ethical self-restraint. We struggle to gain rights, only in order to give them away.
Consider the example of “freedom of speech.” This freedom must be obtained and jealously guarded. But he who has freedom of speech is morally, not legally, obliged to refrain some some types of speech. Ethical self-restraint will prevent him from using speech to harm his neighbor.
One must not be naive to the point of assuming that this ethical self-restraint will be perfect. There will be transgressions. But that is no reason for abandoning the program of freedom. There is no perfect or perfectible society. An interventionist government will also have transgressions, and more egregious ones. We may only choose the lesser evil.