Liberty is never an accident. It requires a philosophical acceptance of an individual’s right to his or her own life, and a full understanding of the logical implications and consequences of that right. That acceptance must prevail among intellectuals and through their explanation and leadership, embraced and promoted by a substantial portion of the population. A set of governing institutions has to be devised that are subordinated to the protection of individual rights but strong enough to protect those rights. The difficulties are borne out by history, where attempts to establish political orders based on liberty are few, and their successful and lasting establishment nonexistent.
The argument is made that humanity is unfit for liberty—individuals are incapable of living their own lives peaceably with other individuals. This is true for some individuals, but it has been pronounced as an indictment of the entire species. Because humanity is unfit for freedom, the argument invariably runs, coercion is justified. In other words, individuals—who cannot be trusted with the freedom to peaceably live their own lives—can be given the power to forcibly direct other people’s lives. Chaos, violence, and a world at the brink of epochal collapse are the direct consequences of that inane formulation, yet never has humanity seemed less likely to embrace liberty.
The period from 1865 to 1913 was one of the few in which substantial numbers of people lived in relative freedom, particularly in the US and parts of Europe. The Industrial Revolution, propelled by British and US advances in science, technology, and production, reached its apex during this time. Critics of the period focus on its poverty, degradation, and brutal social conditions and set an impossible benchmark—immediate elimination of those conditions—ignoring their centuries-long prevalence and the most rapid and widespread increases in real incomes and general living standards in history. Footprints are telling: immigrants chose, by the millions, to come to the US, supposedly the most “exploitative” country, and powered the astonishing ascent that took the US from Civil War ruins to the world’s preeminent economy and power in less than five decades.
In the US, liberty was dramatically curtailed in 1913 with the establishment of the Federal Reserve and the passage of the 16th, or income tax, Amendment. The US government would do what governments had always done: forcibly expropriate its people’s wealth and debase the medium of exchange for its own benefit. A year later the relative peace of the preceding period (critics again set an impossible benchmark—the complete absence of war—when judging it) gave way to World War I as governments resumed doing what they’d always done. The US joined two years later. War serves as an excuse for governments to restrict liberty and this one was no exception. The US government jacked up tax rates, instituted conscription, and threw critics of the war in jail.
The alternatives to liberty are coercion, repression, and violence, and the 20th century ranks as mankind’s most coercive, repressive, and violent yet. Totalitarian regimes came to power in Russia, China, Germany, Japan, and a host of smaller nations. For much of the century, they ruled over more than half the global population. Even in countries regarded as “freer,” diminution of individual liberty has been the persistent trend. The basis of the welfare state is theft. The basis of central banking is the production of scrip of no intrinsic value and its coerced acceptance as a medium of exchange. The power of governments and their central banks has continuously grown, always at the expense of individual liberty.
Governments that consistently abridge the rights of their own people will not respect the rights of people in other countries. The thrust of US military policy shifted from primarily defensive (with the exception of Latin America and territory occupied by Native Americans) during the Industrial Revolution to intervention in other nations’ wars in WWI and WWII to an offensive posture since the Vietnam War. Like income redistribution and economic regulation, war invariable increases a government’s power and its share of the nation’s resources. Concomitantly, it reduces individuals’ liberty and takes from them an increasing portion of their own production.
The US government now claims the right to invade any country without the permission of that country’s government. While it has not said so publicly and officially, the government also claims the right to replace governments in other countries that it regards as inimical to its interests. Even a partial list of where the government has exercised its supposed “rights” since the 1890s is long: most of the nations of Latin America, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, China, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Yemen, and Somalia. The US military maintains bases and special operations forces in over 150 countries, and the US spends more on armaments and military manpower than the next nine nations combined. In light of all this, the conclusion in inescapable that the US government is an imperial power and aspires to permanent hegemony
One group in American politics shuns or seeks to limit the government’s foreign intervention because the resources devoted to such intervention could be used for domestic programs and income redistribution. Another group opposes such programs and redistribution, but supports intervention. There is an overlapping group. The defining features of all three are intellectual incoherence and an inability or refusal to recognize consequences.
Forcibly taking legitimately produced or acquired wealth from one person for the benefit of the government and its chosen beneficiaries is theft, a fundamental abridgment of liberty—the freedom to productively support one’s self and those one chooses. Evil begets evil. The supposed “needs” justifying redistribution are limitless; production is not. Enslaving producers for the benefit of the government and its beneficiaries reduces and eventually destroys their willingness and ability to produce, and simply destroys the beneficiaries.
The gratitude that usually flows from recipients of private, voluntary charity to their benefactors gives way to an entitlement mentality and sloth, invariably encouraged by declarations from the government and its supporters about the rights of some to the fruits of others’ labor. For a right to be a right it must be universal, and we all cannot enjoy these so called “rights” to have someone else support us. The rampant social pathologies of the class dependent on direct monetary aid and myriad government programs are obvious—crime, illegitimacy, the drug and prostitution trades, decaying inner cities, and riots, et. al.—but will be ignored by proponents of redistribution until production grinds to a halt and funding fails.
That failure will inevitably lead to widespread violence and chaos among beneficiaries denied their benefits. Indeed, some of redistribution’s intellectual lights call for just such an outcome—the collapse of the present system, to be replaced by full-on socialism. The question of how a society that can no longer afford quasi-socialism will be able to afford the full-on version is left unanswered. Totalitarian slavery is the outcome, the answer that dares not speak its name.
The intellectual failure of those who identify the inherent flaws of redistribution and its negative consequences, but who nevertheless propose that the government forcibly intervene in countries that have neither attacked the US nor pose a danger to it, is greater than that of domestic redistribution’s proponents. If, in the immortal words of Ringo Starr, “Everything government touches turns to crap” at home, how can anyone who embraces Starr’s wisdom expect a different result when government goes abroad? Most Americans would not choose to live in inner city Detroit, Newark, Chicago, Washington, or any other of our urban hellholes, but would if the alternative was Baghdad, Kabul, Kunduz, Benghazi, Tripoli, Damascus, or Beirut.
Venality rather than obtuseness accounts for the plainly erroneous assessments of government’s efficacy in reordering other countries. Reality has obliterated whatever idealistic sentiments animated US forays into Vietnam and the Middle East and northern Africa; they made existing situations far worse. Redistribution—the forced transfer of wealth that many proponents of intervention criticize when practiced in the homeland—is the impetus for continuing intervention. Military adventurism and its associated surveillance state are multi-trillion-dollar endeavors that support a large percentage of the government’s payroll and legions of private contractors. Peace and a noninterventionist foreign policy are their worst nightmares. They recycle some of the largess received from the government back to officials to prevent them.
The spread of terrorism and violence far beyond the borders of Middle Eastern and Northern African nations are readily identifiable but generally unacknowledged blowback from foreign military intervention in those nations, as are the consequent refugee flows. The “surprise” expressed by the intervenors is disingenuous. Violence begets violence. For the interventionist nations, the dozens killed in Paris last week are a tragedy, the millions killed across the Middle East and Northern Africa the last few decades are a statistic, except for the interventionists’ “warriors.” The wonder is not the attack, but that the death toll in interventionist nations is so small relative to the death toll in the nations in which they have intervened.
To say that there is some sort of security apart from securing individual rights and liberty is fallacious; the supposed choice between liberty and security is a false choice. There can be no security for a collective when there is no security of rights and liberty for the individual members of that collective. To “safeguard” our security the government could lock each of us in our own steel and concrete cell. The security supposedly safeguarded would be meaningless compared to the complete loss of liberty, but the arrangement would have its advantages. It would demonstrate that security without liberty is not security at all; it’s restriction, confinement, and slavery. And it would demonstrate an important historical truth, the leitmotif of the twentieth century and on present course, the twenty-first: the most dangerous threat to both liberty and security is government.
Evil begets evil. The violence and abridgment of individual rights and liberties inherent in today’s welfare/warfare states lead to more violence, repression, and chaos. The term cycle of violence is both overused and wrong, because the word cycle implies a return to a starting point, when in fact violence and its attendant repression and chaos produce only a downward spiral.
Paris, the bombing of the Russian jet, and terrorist massacres in Beirut and Ankara, all within the last few weeks, make it appear that the descent is accelerating. It may well be, or it may be that the kind of carnage and death tolls that are the daily routine across the Middle East and Northern Africa have forced their way into consciousnesses blissfully ignorant of what their governments have wrought. Either way, the recent incidents will lead to more violence and repression as those governments respond to public cries to “do something,” ensuring a commensurate response from those they are directed against, and more displacement, despair, and death among the innocent.
Individual rights and liberty, and government subordinated to their protection, offer the only prospect of enduring security. The chance of their adoption by the present order is nil. Liberty is never an accident, but the memory of and the longing for it are never extinguished. Downward spirals are not perpetual motion, sooner or later their destructiveness must result in their own destruction. That time may be closer than anyone thinks. When it happens, those who would make liberty more than memory and a longing must stand ready to sacrifice, fight both physical and intellectual battles, and risk all, for that is what liberty has and will always require.
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