I suppose I can date my interest in both libertarianism and Austrian Economics from the day I was born. The doctor grabbed me by my little feet, turned me upside down and spanked my tiny bottom.
I began to cry out. That is when I realized the fundamental axiom that, “man acts.” In addition, I appreciated that what the doctor had done was in violation of the “non-aggression” principle.
The rest is history. Well . . . maybe not quite.
For some reason, I had found history and current events interesting when I was in my early ‘teens in the 1960s. I had a part-time job at the Hollywood Public Library in Los Angeles when I was in high school. Part of responsibilities was to maintain the magazine collections on a balcony in the building. I would finish my work, and hide up in the balcony reading new and old political and news publications.
But I soon was confused. When I read “left-of-center” publications like “The Nation” or the “New Republic,” they always seemed to have the moral high ground, making the case for “social justice,” “fairness” and morality. On the other hand, when I read “right-of-center” publications like “Human Events” or “National Review” the argument was made that all that “bleeding heart” stuff just did not work. There was a “bottom line”: it cost too much, screwed things up, and socialism and communism seemed to kill a lot of people.
The views that I expressed in the calm and friendly and enjoyable exchange are those usually labeled as classical liberal or libertarian. My dinner companion reasoned from what is the “modern” liberal or “progressive” point-of-view. Like myself, he has been a professor in higher education, and he is widely read and very knowledgeable.
What became clear, both during the conversation and from reflecting on it afterwards, are some of the following conclusions.
Conflicting Meanings of Freedom
For a classical liberal, freedom means that each individual possesses as a human being certain inviolable rights, those being rights to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property. And that human relationships should be based on voluntary consent and mutual agreement.
For my interlocutor, freedom means “empowerment” or the ability to do or achieve certain things, without which “freedom” is not complete. These include a minimum or “decent” standard of living and the ability to attain certain potentials in life, which are everyone’s “right” as a member of society.
For my fellow conversationalist, society is a shared “community” of human beings each of whom owes certain things to the others, just as the others owe certain things to us. Society might be viewed as an extended family, from this perspective, all the members of which have certain required obligations to support and give assistance to their social “relatives.”
I suggested that society is a network of human relationships formed between individuals based upon opportunities for mutual betterment, including both the economic and the cultural in the widest sense, the fundamental foundation of which derives from those essential individual rights.
The “Social Contract”: Individualist or Collectivist?
LIBERTY, COMPETITION, AND FREE TRADE ARE KEYS TO PROSPERITY
All of these promises are premised on the fundamental idea that governments and, more precisely, those who hold political office and power can successfully redesign and “plan” aspects of society considered more “socially just” or economically “fair.”
These are old ideas, tried many times in many places. And everywhere they have created corruption, favoritism, and stagnation or at least slower growth and less material improvement than otherwise might have been the case.
What actually makes for a more just society experiencing greater opportunity, improved conditions and rising standards of living for virtually all over the long run? In a nutshell, three words: freedom, competition and trade. These are the “open sesame” to alleviate poverty, privilege, and inequity in society.
All of this was first explained with clarity, some times eloquence, and always logical and historical insight and wisdom by the Scottish moral philosopher and political economist, Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his great book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which was published 240 years ago on March 5, 1776.