Freedom and Its Supposed Liabilities
Tibor R. Machan
by Tibor R. Machan
indeed, when men and women are free, one apparent liability that
cannot be avoided is that they can do whatís wrong, as well as whatís
right. Freedom makes both good and bad behavior possible with impunity,
so long as other people arenít robbed of their liberty in the process.
this upsets a lot of folks. They keep harping about the fact that
freedom isnít going to produce a perfect society, with everyone
doing everything right and all achieving happiness or bliss in the
critics think this is a liability of a free society, as if some
other system had it over it by managing what the free society cannot
manage, namely, guarantee virtue, even perfection. But such a system
of laws does not exist, either as a historical phenomenon or as
the product of anyoneís political imagination. The truth is that
the complaint that freedom has this liability is completely phony.
No alternative is any better and indeed the rest are all worse.
consider this. Yes, in a free society the laws arenít going to stop
people from being stupid, irresponsible, impolite, greedy, gluttonous
or anything else that most of us would consider personally wrongheaded,
unethical, even at times out and out vicious say when a friend
betrays another. No such conduct can be banned in a free society,
two things must be kept in mind as one considers this plain fact.
One is that in a free society the wrong-headedness of people tends
to turn on them, not on others. Because of the institution of private
property rights, free men and women all have what the economists
so quaintly call the "exit option." They can leave the
purview of anyone who is being reckless, irresponsible, mean, impolite,
or self-destructive. Sure, at times it is difficult to part from
such people, especially if they have been close to one, if they
are members of oneís family. But because strong fences exist between
us in a free society we, as adults at least, need to choose to
be with others for an association to exist, we cannot be lumped
together by tyrants or even the majority in the end we can leave
those who mess up to stew in their own juices. And this clearly
will encourage them, as well as thatís possible, to mend their ways.
When oneís misconduct produces the boomerang effect, thatís the
best chance for it to be extinguished. No guarantee, mind you, but
the best chance.
second thing is that any effort to repair the ill doings of people
by giving some other people power to step in cannot but have very
bad consequences. From the time of Aristotle it has been evident
that the dream of a great paternal leader must be moderated by the
undeniable temptation such a position produces for despotism. Benevolent
dictators are nearly non-existent and the few monarchs or chiefs
who did behave well did so for just a little while before they,
too, fell prey to the lure of running roughshod over others. So,
whatever gains one might make by prohibiting men and women to act
badly will be lost when those who have the power to order others
about do their own bad deeds. Just look at the Hitlers, Stalins,
Saddam Husseins and all the other more or less draconian tyrants
in history and our own times including the Islamic leaders
of Iran today and the corrupt authoritarian rulers, secular and
religious, of the past. They offer indisputable cases of how the
effort to make people good backfires and makes the good-makers so
bad that the gambit routinely turns out to be a very bad one. So
does the plethora of reports of political and police corruption
among those entrusted with making others good! It is not for nothing
that Lord Actonís remark that "Power tends to corrupt, and
absolute power corrupts absolutely," has become a cliché,
which is to say an obvious and oft-repeated truth.
it is remembered that bad conduct thatís contained has the best
chance of being abandoned, and that in trying to ban, by coercive
force, the bad choices men and women may make we invite far worse
consequences than what these bad choices produce, perhaps those
clamoring for limitations on liberty for the sake of goodness and
virtue will see the error of their proposals.
him mail] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite.
Copyright © 2004 Tibor Machan