Freedom Is Not Compatible with Government’s Initiation of Force Against Innocent People

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In yesterday’s
New York Times appears an op-ed
by Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard.
Glaeser’s article is remarkable because arguments in favor
of freedom, insisting that economic analysis implicitly rests on
a moral presumption that individual freedom has fundamental value,
do not appear every day – or every month – in “the
newspaper of record.” So, I am glad to give two cheers to Glaeser,
one for his theme and another for his courage in placing the argument
in such a hostile outlet.

I cannot give
Glaeser a third cheer, however, because toward the end of the article
he inserts a concession that I find wholly inconsistent with the
rest of the argument. He writes:

fondness for freedom rarely implies any particular policy program.
A fondness for freedom is perfectly compatible with favoring redistribution,
which can be seen as increasing one person’s choices at the
expense of the choices of another, or with Keynesianism and its
emphasis on anticyclical public spending.

Many regulations
can even be seen as force for freedom, like financial rules that
help give all investors the freedom to invest in stocks by trying
to level the playing field.

To be sure,
many mainstream economists do think about policy just as Glaeser
says they do. But in doing so, they are mistaken. I find it difficult
to believe that a man of Glaeser’s intelligence has really
given much thought to what he is saying in these passages.

In fact, a
presumption in favor of freedom rules out virtually everything that
modern governments do, certainly nearly everything they do in interfering
in economic affairs. Redistribution of income, for example, requires
that the government rob Peter in order to benefit Paul (and its
own functionaries, who serve as middlemen in this transfer). This
action is not freedom; it is a crime against Peter, a raw violation
of his right to his own legitimate property. Keynesian countercyclical
spending requires the government to spend borrowed money whose acquisition
is premised on future taxation (that is, robbery) of taxpayers in
order to service the debt and repay the principal. Again, innocent
persons have their rights violated. How can anyone fail to see that
robbery is incompatible with freedom? Finally, the financial rules
that Glaeser finds compatible with freedom entail threats of violence
against financial transactors who do not follow arbitrary government
rules – often extremely foolish and even destructive rules
– in making their transactions, notwithstanding the fact that
the parties to the transaction may be perfectly willing to proceed
without such regulatory compliance. Such regulation is the very
opposite of freedom; it is instead the sheer imposition of outside
force, intruding on willing transactors, and thereby discouraging
them to some extent, if not entirely, with consequent loss of the
wealth that such transactions would have created, in addition to
the loss of liberty.

Perhaps it
is unseemly for someone such as I to make a recommendation to a
Harvard professor, yet I cannot resist the urge to suggest that
Glaeser read, say, Murray Rothbard’s Power
and Market
. Expositions of that sort would help him to gain
a clearer vision of the distinction between individual freedom and
state domination in economic affairs. Glaeser quotes Milton Friedman
to good effect in his article, but Friedman’s writings ought
to be the beginning, rather than the end of wisdom in this area.
In regard to freedom, Friedman’s arguments were good as far
as they went, but they did not go nearly far enough. Like Glaser,
Friedman was prepared to make many concessions to state power, and
his focus on utilitarian arguments, as opposed to moral principles,
diminished the intellectual force of his laudable efforts to enlarge
the scope of liberty in economic affairs.

from the Independent Institute.

27, 2010

Higgs [send him mail] is
senior fellow in political economy at the Independent
and editor of The
Independent Review
. He
is also a columnist for His
most recent book is Neither
Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government
He is also the author of Depression,
War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy
, Resurgence
of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11
and Against
Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society

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