Liberty and the Thinking of Albert Einstein

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When contemplating
a famous quote of Albert Einstein the other day, it very much resonated
with my experience as a libertarian. I decided to check out more
of Einstein’s
famous quotes
. I discovered that a number of his famous
quotes were explicitly libertarian in nature, while there were others
which were general in nature yet very much compatible with a libertarian
worldview. Of course, this is not to suggest that Einstein consistently
held libertarian positions, which is not the case. Yet it is instructive
to review the observations of this profound, independent thinker
and see how they align with libertarian views. I have categorized
the relevant quotes into 3 categories: government, war, and problem
solving. In some instances, I have just reproduced the quotes, while
elsewhere I have added my own comments.

Government

“Anyone who
doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted
in large ones either.”

Statists
will discount the significance of lies made on the campaign trail,
but as Einstein suggests, these folks cannot be trusted on important
matters.

“Force always
attracts men of low morality.”

This is reminiscent
of Hayek’s observation that in totalitarian societies, the worst
will rise to the top.

“In matters
of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small
problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all
the same.”

Einstein
seemed to grasp that morality is universal and that governments
are not immune from the rules that apply to the individual.

“Nothing is
more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the
land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.”

While almost
everyone would agree with this statement, the libertarian emphasizes
that laws prohibiting consensual exchanges are by their very nature
controversial and difficult to enforce and that they ultimately
undermine the rule of law.

“Sometimes
one pays most for the things one gets for nothing.”

When reading
this, one cannot help thinking of the saying that there
is no such thing as a free lunch.

“The attempt
to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and
then only for a short while.”

“The hardest
thing to understand in the world is the income tax.”

Evidently,
certain mysteries of the universe are simply beyond human comprehension!

“The high destiny
of the individual is to serve rather than to rule.”

Contrast
this with the statist notion that “public service” is the ideal.

“The road to
perdition has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal.”

“Never do anything
against conscience even if the state demands it.”

War

“Heroism on
command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that
goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them!”

“It is my conviction
that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”

“You cannot
simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”

So much for
the “military preparedness” emphasis which gave rise to a state
of permanent war in the United States.

Problem
solving

“All that is
valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development
accorded the individual.”

Einstein
well understood the importance of the work of individuals to what
we think of as civilization.

“Few people
are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ
from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are
even incapable of forming such opinions.”

On the other
hand, Einstein knew well that individualism goes against the grain
of groupthink so characteristic of society.

“It is a miracle
that curiosity survives formal education.”

As libertarians
have long noted, “formal education” does little to bolster creative
and critical thinking and much to squash it.

“It’s not that
I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

We notice
that many of our friends, family members and colleagues with statist
tendencies do not seem to be deficient in intelligence. While
few libertarians will make enduring contributions to human thought,
we do seem to “stay with problems longer” and not be satisfied
with approaches that do not seem to be working.

“Most people
say that is it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They
are wrong: it is character.”

In the wake
of “Climategate," I find this observation to be a timely
one. But the issue goes well beyond fudging data or being forthright
about the state of knowledge in one’s field; the
great scientist
must approach his work with a commitment
to truths which may not be popular or bolster his career. Of course,
an abundance of grey matter doesn’t hurt either.

“Occurrences
in this domain are beyond the reach of exact prediction because
of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack
of order in nature.”

This
sounds a lot like the Austrian view of macroeconomic forecasting.

“We can’t solve
problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created
them.”

This is the
quote that started my whole foray into the thinking of Albert
Einstein. Libertarians understand at the gut level that we cannot
solve the major social problems plaguing society until we have
a paradigm shift. Some examples of the kind of thinking that only
exacerbates our problems are as follows:

    If the
    economy (in whole or in part) performs poorly, this demonstrates
    that the free market is deficient and more government intervention
    is needed.

    Political
    party A is to blame for all of our problems. If party B were
    in charge, things would be altogether different.

    If not
    for all of our wars, we would not have our freedom.

In a democracy,
the people and the government are one and the same.

Libertarians
know that solving major social problems is not fundamentally about
winning elections, passing constitutional amendments, or any of
the other myriad of supposed remedies. It is about persuading
a critical mass of individuals to let go of fallacious ideas and
replace them with better ones.

January
18, 2010

D.
Saul Weiner [send him mail]
is an actuary and writer living in the suburbs of Chicago.

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