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Is Liberty Too Extreme?

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There is one type of question, more than any other, that the advocate of freedom is likely to be asked over the years: Human liberty and freedom of choice are, of course, important social and moral goods, but can’t they be pushed too far? Is it not better to work for, and accept, a more moderate balance in society? Your position, it will be said, seems to offer no compromise, no happy medium through which a common ground can be found so that a reasonable amount of freedom can be attained. Don’t you think your dogmatic extremism only serves to work against the very goals for which you are devoting your energies?

The first reply to this type of question, is to ask back, “With what are we asked to compromise and to offer a more moderate position?” The answer, of course, is that the advocate of freedom is being asked to find a common ground with state power and the use of government coercion in social affairs.

The problem is that ultimately there can be no compromise between freedom and coercion, between social relationships based upon mutual, voluntary consent, and human relationships ordered by command and backed up by the threat, or actual use, of force. There is an irreconcilable tension in a society that is part-free and part-slave. An individual who is prohibited from, or restrained in, his peaceful intercourse with other free men is not his own master. And to that extent he is a slave to the will and wishes of another.

But such a response by the advocate of freedom fails to touch the real heart of the matter. Who, in this debate over freedom and coercion, is the actual extremist and who is the actual moderate? The advocate of state coercion in social affairs cannot stand the fact that people make choices, and undertake courses of action, of which he disapproves. He objects to the fact that people fail to follow the paths that his reason and values consider rational and good. Everything else is either chaotic or sinister.

In this sense, he is like the maniac of whom G.K. Chesterton speaks in his book, Orthodoxy. The madman, Chesterton says, is the one “who has lost everything except his reason…. He is not hampered by a sense of humor or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.” The madman has a “most sinister quality” of “connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze.”

The advocate of state coercion has, in this sense, been driven mad by the outcomes of a free society. If some men are poor while others are well-to-do, he cannot accept the idea that this is due to natural scarcity of resources, or is merely as far as capitalism has yet been able to raise people’s standards of living in an on-going, and time-consuming, process of savings and investment. No, it must be because men have been unreasonable, have not submitted themselves to a plan — his plan — that his reason has given him, and not others, the superior wisdom and insight to see.

If some men receive lower pay than others, or do not have access to all the goods and services they desire, the advocate of state coercion — like the madman — often sees sinister motives and dark conspiracies. If some workers receive lower wages, it can’t be because of a lack of marketable skills or insufficient personal ambition to better themselves. No, it must be because of the businessman’s greed and unwillingness to pay “a fair wage,” or a plot among the employers to exploit their fellow human beings. The advocate of state coercion can see beneath the charade and he, of course, knows the regulation or intervention to put the conspirators in their place and remedy the problem.

The social madman has the answer and the solution for everything. He has no patience for ignorance, good intentions that go astray, or some natural scheme of things. And like the madman, he has no doubts about his knowledge, the goodness of his intentions and their outcome, or what the scheme of things should be turned into. Human freedom and its advocates are the irritants that he tolerates when he has to, but with which and with whom he never compromises. He has too much confidence in his own vision. In his mind, extremism in the defense of the state-molded “great society” is no vice.

In his book, The Pleasures of a Nonconformist, the Chinese philosopher and social critic, Lin Yutang, explains that “The aim of Chinese classical education has always been the cultivation of the reasonable man as the model of culture. An educated man should, above all, be a reasonable being. A reasonable being is always characterized by his common sense, his love of moderation and restraint…. To be reasonable is to avoid extremes…. To say to a man, ‘Do be reasonable’ is the same as saying ‘Make some allowance for human nature. Do not push a fellow too far.”‘

I would like to suggest that regardless of whether or not Professor Lin was right — that this is what Chinese classical education produced — it does capture essential qualities of what the advocate of freedom sees as some of the hallmarks of the free society: moderation, restraint and allowance for human nature.

Let me try to explain this with two examples. In February of this year, a federal regulation was passed banning smoking on all domestic airline flights of less than six hours of duration. The antismoking advocate just cannot reconcile himself to the existence of others who gain pleasure from something of which he disapproves, and by people who weigh the enjoyment of the present against the consequences of the future differently than himself. Nor can he stand a world in which the market provides options to those with different preferences: some airlines that permit smoking and others (e.g., Northwest Airlines) that ban smoking on all domestic flights as a response to what they view as a market opportunity to get a larger share of the non-smoking public that flies.

For the advocate of freedom, the market alternative is precisely the reasonable and moderate one. It recognizes and accepts the varieties and preferences among men and offers a compromise, a peaceful resolution, of the differences among them. And it leaves a wide avenue open for one group of men to reason and persuade another to modify their choices and forswear “a filthy and corrupting” habit.

Another example is affirmative action. In the old days, people of different races were forcefully kept apart. Segregation laws prohibited various forms of voluntary interaction among men and women of different color. Now the laws forcefully require the interaction of different races both inside and outside the workplace. The enemy of racism, just like the advocate of racism, abhors tolerance and refuses to restrain himself when he objects to the foolish and perverse conduct of his fellow men.

Neither is willing to allow for human nature: the racist who could not stand the fact that market opportunities created incentives for people of different color to peacefully and voluntarily trade and interact with each other; and the anti-racist who cannot stand the fact that obstinate people with atavistic ideas may be willing to pay the price of lost market opportunities so as not to associate with people of a different race.

The advocate of freedom, with his deep belief and faith in the sanctity and uniqueness of the individual, has always been repelled by the evaluation of a human being on the basis of his skin pigmentation. But he has also appreciated the danger of, pushing a fellow too far. A good society is not produced by forcing one person on another. The freedom advocate has known that this may only cause a backlash of the very type of racist sentiment that the affirmative-action laws were meant to overcome.

To be reasonable, the free society must avoid extremes, and it does so through the diversity of free men that it both permits and fosters. It restrains the practice of “extreme” personal behavior because it imposes costs and consequences upon everyone who practices them — loss of economic opportunity, social ostracism by those who are repelled by it. And it teaches the advantages of moderation — courtesy, good manners, tolerance and “socially acceptable” conduct.

In other words, the free society, accepting human nature, nudges men toward better behavior rather than compels it. It teaches rational and moral conduct through reason and example. It fosters compromise by demonstrating the personal costs of being too extreme in one’s personal actions. And it raises the ethical conduct of the society by the discovered advantages of personal improvement through time.

Is liberty too extreme? Quite the contrary. Freedom is the epitome of moderation. And it is freedom’s moderation, its tolerance and diversity, that drives some men mad. But madness, by definition, is not the normal condition of a healthy human being. The history of western civilization is the story of man’s slow escape from the madness of political and social extremism. Our dilemma and our challenge is that this sickness still controls the minds of too many.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).