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Liberty and the Thinking of Albert Einstein

     

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

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