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You might be, as I am, alarmed about the future of liberty. How deep are the roots of liberty when so many submit to authoritarian measures in response to COVID, and approve the use of coercion against those less eager to comply? Unable to visualize alternatives, public acceptance of top-down coercive solutions to COVID demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice liberty for the promise of safety.
To restore liberty, our understanding of liberty needs to deepen.
The prolific author and educator Leonard Read is most famous for his timeless essay “I, Pencil.” In one of his earlier works, Students of Liberty, based on a 1950 talk he delivered to economics students at the University of Pittsburgh, Read clarifies in simple terms what liberty is and the mindset that must be restored. Read writes, “Liberty— the absence of coercion or violence— is not readily comprehended.” He explains that the absence of coercion and violence is not readily comprehended because “relatively few among those who have lived on this earth have been able to visualize any order in society, or any progress by those who compose it, except as the will of some has been imposed on the actions of others.”
Tellingly, Read adds, “History, for the most part, is a record of violence. Present-day talk and writing— history in the making— for the most part is an argument for the rearrangement of the rules of violence.”
History is being made not merely by governments and bureaucrats but by our fellow Americans. The results of this Rasmussen poll conducted earlier this year reveal a readiness of the American public to rearrange the “rules of violence:”
59 percent of Democratic voters would favor a government policy requiring that citizens remain confined to their homes at all times, except for emergencies, if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Nearly half (48 percent) of Democratic voters think federal and state governments should be able to fine or imprison individuals who publicly question the efficacy of the existing COVID-19 vaccines on social media, television, radio, or in online or digital publications.”
45 percent of Democrats would favor governments requiring citizens to temporarily live in designated facilities or locations if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine
47 percent of Democrats favor a government tracking program for those who won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine.
29 percent of Democratic voters would support temporarily removing parents’ custody of their children if parents refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
To be sure, a clear majority of all likely voters oppose these measures. Yet, a terrifying wind justifying violence is blowing, a wind that an alarming number of voters of all stripes are welcoming.
Having aroused primitive fears, Dr. Fauci, Bill Gates, presidents and governors, supported by mainstream news and social media censorship, purported to assume responsibility for our health decisions. People felt relieved from the burden of exploring what they can do to boost their immune system and sustain their health. Read explores the consequences of outsourcing personal responsibility:
Once the reliance on self is removed, once the responsibility for a portion of our being has been assumed by another — be that other a person, a set of persons, or the police force—we cease to think about or apply our ingenuity to the activities thus transferred. When the agency to which the transfer is made is the state, an agency of coercion, is it any wonder that creative thought diminishes to near non-existence?
We become convinced that there are no other solutions, so we stop looking for them. Read explains, “Creative thought is abandoned by man as a free and thus a creative agent and assumed by man as an agent of coercion. Coercion, by its nature, is incapable of creativeness.” No wonder, with government in charge, top-down coercive solutions are prioritized, and efforts to discover effective treatments for COVID are actively thwarted.
If you are tired of being on the defense opposing endless coercive measures or want “less talk and more action,” Read’s Students of Liberty is a balm for your liberty-minded soul. Yet, this is not a call to organize and elect the right people.
The movie When a Stranger Calls provides a metaphor that exposes the human tendency to see our problems as far removed from where they really are. In the movie, the psychotic killer calling the babysitter was not far away; the calls were coming from inside the house. The real threat to liberty and the means to restore liberty are closer than we think.
The Rasmussen poll results may trigger a defense response: to bloody hell with those who would trample on our rights. Think again. Some of those with illiberal views are our family members, colleagues, and neighbors. Read points us to a fundamental fact of human existence—humanity is interdependent. He writes that our “existence on this earth beyond a primitive state requires a recognition of this fact and a knowledge of how to deal with it skillfully.”
Read observes, “How to deal with it [interdependence] skillfully is where divergence of opinion in social affairs originates.” He continues, “This divergence takes the shape of two diametrically opposed recommendations. One commends life in accordance with the principle of violence. The other commends life in accordance with the principle of love.”
When we think of violence, we think of criminals or governments waging wars. Read asks us to broaden our understanding of violence and reflect on the many ways we support violence. Mandating funding government programs we don’t support with our tax dollars is an act of violence. Violence includes actions taken to prevent people from making peaceful decisions as to how to use their energy and property.
Read is clear: “The cause of our ills is a reliance on the principle of violence. Violence breeds violence. The more of it we practice, the more of it will we rationalize as justified— even ‘needed.’”
Will the path our country is going down lead to the violent horrors we are witnessing today in Shanghai, where over 25 million people are trapped in their apartments with little food?
Read writes, “The alternative to violence is love.” Of course, he is not referring to romantic love. Instead, he recognizes the virtues of love:
Love, as here used, refers to the application of the kindly virtues in human relations such as tolerance, charity, good sportsmanship, the right of another to his views, integrity, the practice of not doing to others what you would not have them do to you, and other attributes which result in mutual trust, voluntary cooperation, and justice.
“Love prospers only in liberty.” Read continues,
[Love] generates and grows among free men; only with difficulty among men ruled by the principles of violence. As violence begets violence so does one personal act of kindness beget another… It is, then, in liberty that man’s natural aptness evolves toward its potentiality and its goodness.
Read sees the truth: Love prospers in liberty. It is also true that liberty prospers only with love. Only with love will you accept the principles of a free society. The rights and freedom you cherish for yourself are possible only when you cherish the same rights for everyone else.
It is twisted to believe you have the freedom to choose a medical procedure for yourself and, at the same time, believe others should make the same choice as you. Read cautions us to examine the underlying belief that we are more “decent” than others:
It is not necessary to make the case for the principle of love. Most persons will contend that it is the principle we ought to practice but that it is impractical. But try to find the individual who believes it impractical so far as he is concerned. He doesn’t exist. Each person thinks only that it is others who are incapable of decency.
Believing oneself more decent than others, it is an easy step to set oneself up as the standard for how others should live:
What I am asserting is that everyone thinks himself essentially good, and capable of the high performances which interdependence requires in accordance with the principles of love. Why, then, don’t we be done with violence? Primarily, the reason is because of an all-too-common inhibiting fallacy, a myth we have conjured up in our minds: “No one else is quite as good and dependable, if left to his own resources, as I am.” This is a form of intellectual Caesarism. In effect, the persons who hold this opinion aver that the world would be a better place in which to live if only others were cast in their image— a rather brazen indictment of God.
Read explains why calls to “action” are relatively ineffective ways to restore and advance liberty. He singles out what matters most to the future of liberty: we must be students of the principles of liberty. He explains that even advanced students have more to learn:
An appreciation that progress is possible only when human energy is freed of restraint, has been gained by but few men. Is there one book or one article written by anyone at any time that can be designated as the final word on liberty? I doubt it. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the finest minds of all time have been in pursuit of its understanding and that now and then a tiny ray of new light has been thrown on what theretofore was darkness and lack of understanding. These few most advanced searchers have been among those who say: “The more exploration I do, the more I find there is to learn.”
As advanced searches of liberty, we join Read in asking, “What [then] ought to be the direction of our efforts?
My answer— self-improvement— is the essence of simplicity. The reasons which lie behind the answer, however, are complex. But without the complex reasons, the simple answer is useless. The inclinations to escape personal responsibility, and the conjured-up beliefs that somehow intellectual miracles can be wrought by us on someone else, are too persuasive for easy rejection. Unless we fully understand that these inclinations and beliefs are wholly without merit we will continue to indulge them. I wish to make the argument, as best I can, for self-improvement as the only practical course that there is to a greater liberty.
Read cautions that if you believe it is not you but someone else who needs improvement, you are looking in the wrong direction:
This notion that it is always someone else rather than one’s self who is in need of improvement is based on several false assumptions. It denies any extension of understanding to the one person on earth on whom one has the greatest influence— himself. It stamps the speaker as thinking of himself as a finished intellectual product, as all-wise. And, finally, it ignores the idea of truth as an object of infinite pursuit. This notion asserts a type of egotism in the presence of which learning cannot take place. It is death to the spirit of inquiry.
Read poses three questions for us to measure our commitment to liberty: “Would I initiate offense on those who would not offend me? Am I unjust, naturally, to the point where violence is required to restrain me? Am I unable and unwilling to deal honestly with those who would deal honestly with me?”
Read challenges us to vigorously discover the limits of our own understanding and recognize our failures to choose love over violence: “The student attitude is more than a matter of mere assertion. It is more than finding out what is known. It requires the rare quality of finding out that which is not known.”
Learning about love vs. violence should be a focus of our efforts:
If it be true that one does not become a teacher of liberty until he has advanced himself as a student; if it be true that the principle of love prospers in a condition of liberty; if it be true that the principle of violence thrives in the absence of the principle of love; if it be true that the principle of violence is destructive of ourselves, of civilization, and of mankind; then it would seem to follow that the student attitude should head our agenda of required activities.
Read admits that “to some a disappointing aspect of the student approach is that it reduces the chance of ‘saving the world’ to the saving of only one person— one’s self.” We have been wrong in thinking our work is to change others while pretending we are arbiters of virtue. It is only in the degree of our error that we differ from others.
Our efforts at self-improvement have their compensation: “A person with this philosophy receives satisfaction from any increases in his own perception and, consequently, is not dismayed with the ‘faults’ of others. Actually, there is no other way to ‘save the world.’”
It is easy to tell ourselves that others are not ready to take on the responsibilities of liberty. It is harder to consider our own reluctance to pursue a life of liberty and responsibility. At this crucial moment in history, Read counsels humility: “The advanced students of liberty, who are so greatly needed at this juncture in history, will spring from among those who properly rate their competency low but who are determined to raise it.”
The great news is that advancing liberty doesn’t depend on finding the right people to rule us. You, a student of liberty, are the person we are waiting for. Each of us is waiting for the other to choose love over violence. Stop waiting; living the virtues of love is essential to practicing what we preach.
It is easy to despair, fearing the outlook for liberty has never been bleaker. Read might say the outlook for liberty has never been greater. Why? Awakened to the erosion of liberty, there is more grist for the mill to facilitate our learning than at any time in recent memory. We have more opportunities to become advanced students of liberty. As each of us answers the call, the threat to liberty will diminish. All are called, but are enough of us ready to heed the call? The future of liberty depends on our answer.
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.
He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.
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