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Freedom, Virtue, and Responsibility, Part 3

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Despite their good intentions, the proponents of the welfare-state, managed-economy way of life have ended up with results that are opposite from what they intended. The war on poverty was supposed to end poverty. It did not, and the situation is worse than when the war started some thirty years ago. The war on drugs was supposed to end drug abuse. It did not, and the situation is worse than when the war started some eighty years ago. The war on illiteracy through government-mandated schooling was supposed to create an educated citizenry. It did not, and the situation is worse than it was when the war started some hundred years ago.

Unfortunately, the warriors — both on the left and right of the political spectrum — do not want to let go of their cherished wars. They continue to believe that with just one more tax increase, one more law, one more regulation, one more policeman, one more prison, one more five-year plan, they will finally achieve their aims.

But they will never achieve their aims. Their attempts are doomed. Their reforms will fail, fail, and fail again. And they will leave nothing but misery, destitution, impoverishment, and ignorance in their wake.

And the reason lies not in their intent to achieve the good society — one in which people, by and large, are virtuous and responsible, caring and compassionate. Instead, the problem lies with the means that statists have chosen to achieve the good society: coercion with respect to peaceful activity.

If coercion cannot achieve the good society, is there an alternative? Yes. The answer lies in freedom — a way of life in which people are free to engage in any activity they want, so long as it is peaceful — that is, so long as it does not infringe, in some direct way (murder, theft, rape, assault, trespass, etc.), on the rights of others to do the same. This means a society in which people are free: to engage in any enterprise without political interference, restriction, or permission; to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth; to choose for themselves what to do with that wealth (i.e., spend, save, invest, donate, etc.); to trade with whomever they want; to travel wherever they choose; and to live their lives in any way they wish.

But underlying the entire principle of the free society is this: the right to be irresponsible , so long as it’s peaceful. In other words, the right to sin, so long as the sin does not involve the use of force or fraud against another — the right to reject God — the right to turn one’s back on his neighbor — the right to ingest harmful substances, and even commit suicide. A person has the right to choose between good and evil, beneficial and harmful, so long as his conduct does not entail force or fraud against others.

And this is the principle that separates lovers of freedom from the supporters of statism. All of us want the good society. But statists cannot stand the thought that somewhere someone is sinning — choosing the wrong way — and so the statist is driven by a compulsion to “straighten out” that person (or, in the extreme case, to eliminate him) in order to achieve the “good” society.

This was the compulsion that drove Hitler to eliminate the “undesirables” from German society — they were “interfering” with the achievement of the “good society.” And it is the same compulsion that drives leftists to support the welfare state — they hate the notion, for example, that some rich person might not be doing enough to assist the poor. And it is the same compulsion that drives those on the right side of the political spectrum — they cannot tolerate any deviation from their standard of moral conduct.

The irony is that the good society is the free society. That is, only by protecting the exercise of “irresponsible” conduct (so long as it does not entail murder, rape, theft, etc.) can we hope to achieve the virtuous and responsible society.

How can this be? How can we know that when people are free to choose their own way in life, they will choose “correctly”?

We cannot ever know this in advance. We begin with the fundamental notion that people have the right to choose (Believers would refer to the great gift of free will with which they have been endowed by God). Does this freedom guarantee a good society? No. But it is the only chance there is to achieve such a society!

The human conscience is much like a muscle. Fail to use it, and it atrophies. Use it, and it begins to strengthen. When people are free to choose their way in life, they are confronted with an ever-increasing range of choices. Should I help that person who is starving? Should I ingest that harmful substance? Should I have an affair with that man’s wife?

And it is only through these daily choices that a person can ever develop a sense of “right” conduct. Does this mean that the choices will always be the “right” ones? Of course not. But that’s the point! In order to develop the sense of “right” conduct, the person must be free to engage in the “wrong” conduct. And, over time, we have faith that people’s conscience — their sense of “right behavior” — will strengthen.

This is the key to achieving the good society — the society in which people, by and large, are virtuous and responsible, caring and compassionate. The key is a counter-intuitive one: in order to achieve a virtuous, responsible, caring, and compassionate society, we have to protect legally the exercise of conduct that is non-virtuous and irresponsible, uncaring and non-compassionate.

“But can you guarantee that freedom will achieve the type of society that all of us want?” the supporters of statism ask us. No. We can issue only one guarantee: that the society that attempts to achieve virtue, responsibility, care, and compassion through the force of the state will get the exact opposite! No, we cannot guarantee that liberty will produce good results. We can only say that it provides the only possible chance to achieve good results.

We can point to a model — the United States of America from 1787 to 1900. With several exceptions (slavery, tariffs, and railroad grants being the most notable), people were free to do whatever they wanted, so long as it was peaceful. There was no taxation on income — that is, people were free to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth. There were no economic regulations — if a person wanted to start a business, he was free to do so (“free enterprise”). There was no welfare, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid-people were free to decide for themselves whether to help the poor or not. There was no system of public-schooling — families decided the best educational vehicles for their individual children. There were no drug laws — if a person ingested harmful substances, he bore the responsibility for his conduct.

And what was the result of this unusual society? One result was the most prosperous period in the history of man — and especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. But it was also the most virtuous, caring, compassionate, and responsible society that people had ever seen. When men were free to accumulate wealth, they used that wealth to build the universities, the libraries, and the hospitals. And education? The lack of state-coerced schooling produced the most literate, educated society in history.

Was it a perfect society? Of course not. Freedom does not bring utopia. It simply brings a way of life in which people can choose their own way. And, in the case of our ancestors, that process of choice brought the kind of society that all of us today — including the statists — wish to have.

Can we achieve the good society today? Yes, we can. But the answer lies not in reform. It lies in the repeal — the abolition — the elimination — the end — of the evil, immoral way of life known as the welfare state and the regulated economy (including the much-vaunted wars on poverty, drugs, and illiteracy).

The answer entails an admission that it is evil, immoral, and counterproductive to try to force people to be good, caring, and responsible. It entails an admission that it was wrong — both morally and pragmatically — to abandon the principles of freedom of our ancestors. It entails an admission that when it comes to human action and governmental policy, good intentions are irrelevant. It entails an admission that people have a God-given, inherent right to their own lives, liberties, and properties.

What role does government have in the free society? To protect people from the anti-social individuals who will always be around — those who would inflict violence on others — murderers, thieves, rapists, etc.

Is freedom achievable now? Can we actually achieve the good society in our time?

A hundred years ago, the lovers of freedom told the supporters of statism that their statist ideas would never prevail in the United States, especially since Americans had enjoyed the fruits of so many years of freedom. But the statists persevered, and ultimately prevailed.

Today, the supporters of statism tell us lovers of freedom that our ideas will never prevail. But they are wrong. If we persevere, we will prevail. Americans have now suffered under one hundred years of statism, and they are starting to see that the road to their salvation lies not in reform, but rather in the principles of freedom of their ancestors — principles that will bring a society not only of freedom, but one of virtue and responsibility, care and compassion.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.