Liberty’s Detractors

Ever since the idea of individual liberty has achieved some measure of credibility over the world, those who would be unseated by its limited triumph had to find some way to discredit it or trump it somehow. One way was to re-christen servitude, to make it appear like an even more important kind of liberty than what individual liberty, properly understood, amounts to.


805Puppets and puppeteers…

Photo credit: Kikkerdirk / Fotolia


When a human being is free in the most important, political sense, he or she is sovereign. This means he or she governs his or her own life—others must refrain from intruding on this life, plain and simple. That life may be fortunate or not, rich or not, beautiful or not, and many other things or not, but what matters is that that life is no one else’s to mess with. One gets to run it, no one else does.

Now this is a very uncomfortable idea for all those folks who see all kinds of benefits from running other people’s lives. But they cannot champion this now in so many words, what with individual liberty having gained solid standing, so the only way to remedy matters for them is to claim that their oppression brings even greater freedom to people than the respect and protection of individual liberty.


The Ruse of “Positive” Freedoms

So, we have the kind of “freedoms” propounded by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the freedoms now dubbed “positive.” These freedoms do not get rid of those who would use you, interfere with you, invade your life, rob, kill, or assault you but promise, to the contrary, to take good care of you without your having to do much by invading others, by violating their individual liberties.

These are the entitlement rights offered up by proponents of the welfare state, all those who claim that government is best when it is generous, when it becomes the Nanny State—meaning, when it enslaves Peter to serve Paul:


FDR-RadioFranklin D. Roosevelt: made a nanny state out of a Republic. Benjamin Franklin once noted that the founders had given US citizens a Republic, “if you can keep it”. This afterthought turned out to be prophetic.

Photo credit: AP


I am not sure about what exactly motivates this ruse—some of it is surely the thirst for power. When you want to enslave people, promise them a special kind of liberty. Castro managed to win over millions of Cubans this way, as did other Marxists in Eastern Europe and in Latin America, as well as some jihadists.

Maybe a few folks actually honestly believed that this kind of political alternative is best for us all, but it is difficult to imagine what would persuade them of such a fraudulent notion. Giving people this “positive” freedom must always involve depriving other people of their individual liberty, their “negative” freedom, which is to say, their sovereignty and their freedom from having others interfere with their lives, from depriving them of their resources and labor and regulating (nudging) them to the hilt.


Marx-Lenin-MaoMarxists and other ideologues of their ilk all have in common that they promise their supporters a better material life than they could achieve otherwise. Not only have they never named the price their subjects would have to pay, but their promises turned out to be false as well.

Image credit:


Clear Thinking and Eternal Vigilance Required

Now, there is little that can be done about this in the short run—when people put their minds to such deceptions, the only ultimate defense is clear thinking and vigilance, which is unfortunately always in short supply and needs to be slowly cultivated. Too many people are tempted by the promise of effortless living, of getting all their problems solved at the point of a gun turned on others who will be coerced to come up with the solutions.


rodinPhoto credit: Alexandr Tkachuk


This is such a sweet notion to those who are lazy, who feel left out, or who believe that they are entitled to everything all those who are better off already have going for them, so the power-hungry have a good marketing ploy here.

Envy, maybe, or the bogus political ideologies promoted by those who just must step in to govern the world as they see fit—as I say, I am not sure what kind of mental acrobatics manages to allow people to live with themselves in peace who perpetrate such fraud.

Despite the fact that there is little one can do in response, other than to keep spelling out just what a ruse it all is, perhaps now and then institutional barriers can also be built. Yet, since they too depend upon ideas, ideas that are so easily corrupted, the only real answer is the old one about eternal vigilance. I say, it’s worth it, so let’s go for it.


Image captions by PT


Dr. Tibor R. Machan was until recently a Hoover Institution research fellow. He is Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and held the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University from 1997 to 2014.




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8 Responses to “Peddling the Corruption of Liberty”

  • JoeCobb:

    Mark, you wrote: “…various historical socialist sagas that have unfolded, in that I actually think they were originally founded on high ideals. The corrupted , manipulative and destructive directions they have often taken however …”

    I think the tendency in modern parlance to refer to authoritarian, repressive regimes that try “to mold” humans in a social group into some “ideal” model of relationship or behavior is hardly “a high ideal.” It sounds, to me, like sadism or megalomania by fanatics. Perhaps we call these things “high ideals” because we might have first heard of the crazy cults like the Anabaptists or Savanarolla, because they believed “heaven above” was commanding their holy system to be enforced.

    Would you say that DAESH (the Islamic “State”) is pursuing “high ideals”? Nothing can be higher than their vision of an imaginary paradise presided over by an imaginary Allah.

    • Crysangle:

      Very true, and yet people and populations are open and susceptible to the persuasion offered, the hard end of the stick following as a totalitarian endeavour. The regimes in question did not start off by calling for a mercenary band to enforce a cooked up excuse on the population at gunpoint. No, they encountered existing discord and perceived injustice, alimented it, while suggesting answers that still are common ideals of mankind, such as an increase in individual wellbeing. We have not the right to deny anyone the pursuit of such an ideal, but we have every right to draw a line where it comes at the cost of others. So in today’s age we have the use of freely chosen efficiencies, such as pooling of resources, that increase the benefit to all, voluntary participation in those, or not . The creation of state pretends the same end, but by obligation. It uses, bases itself, on the mentioned ideals, but takes the tiny step of using force to oblige success, and that is where it fails. The pretence of increasing freedom is no more than hijacking part of the attraction of societal interaction, that being the alleviation of the days burdens so as to actually ‘be’.

    • Mark Humphrey:

      Socialist ideals only appear to be “high ideals” if the viewer believes in the ethos of altruism. Altruism requires stamping out individual rights, whereby Joe is to be sacrificed to Paul by force. Joe’s sacrifice is always rationalized by collectivist “ideals” invented by political operators, and the political class always gains advantages from this set up.

      Altruism cannot be imposed unless individuals willingly or by force suppress their own thinking, which they sacrifice to some “greater good”, as defined by the political priesthood.

  • No6:

    Everyone who seeks to hold ‘office’ should be ‘terminated’ on the spot.

  • Crysangle:

    Tibor , I tend to be ‘forgiving’ in my understanding of the various historical socialist sagas that have unfolded , in that I actually think they were originally founded on high ideals . The corrupted , manipulative and destructive directions they have often taken however are not easily forgiven, if at all , and deserve proper explanation . If there is to be a change at grass root level it must come from education , or re-education if you like , as often what is taught does not lead outwards . That is to say that when challenging a modern adherent of the socialist line of thought , the argument of historical failure will not necessarily convince someone who is committed to the humanitarian ideals that modern socialism upholds as its end … the fact that the defendant actually is first beneficiary from the system will make his own argument fully credible to his or her own line of thought !

    There exist working communities that lack ownership or property laws or rights , that do not, or barely, entertain the concept . I am thinking Australian Aboriginal communities , some in South America , there are surely others . I would think the level of interpersonal respect is high amongst them and that somehow familiarity breeds appreciation instead of contempt , possibly because they lack the complex vanities and egotism that we are accustomed to in our own attempts at organized hierarchy , socialism being one of many such .

    So I am led to think that modern social orientated arrangements are maybe an attempt to reach back into the memory or benefit that the above examples carry , which in fact are not far off the ideal of family and household living , and to apply them , to enforce them mechanically , on a society as a whole .

    Somewhere between the one and the other major distortions sneak in . You may find local communities in the west that do function on an ad hoc basis and function well , and there is a simple reason for this , all decisions are scrutinized by the community and all involved are to some degree familiar with the nature of any other involved . The dependencies , the competitions to recognition , are finely veted by other members . There is little need for force or coercion , as those that are deemed unfit are publicly ostracized in one form or another .

    When the system becomes impersonal however, we end up with bureaucracies and laws to replace what was common effect and knowledge , we end up with personality cults , with programmed ideals , and finally with coercion for when reason and respect are lacking or lost . We end up with those that are above or outside the law , we end up with those that may manipulate the laws , we end up being managed by unnacountable people who would prefer it stays that way , and that is what we are taught as an example , with some fine illusion of ideals processioned in front as to be worshipped, and behind as excuses .

    How is a person to nourish his understanding of the world from that ?

    There is an interesting play of interpretation on all of this , stretching way back in time , that maybe illustrates the shift between individual liberty and community obligation , for surely the public have been set free and enslaved many times , depending on how ‘common’ is chosen to be understood or used – the possible change in interpretation may have been taking place since Proto Indo European was spoken.

    Common (adj.)
    c. 1300, “belonging to all, general,” from Old French comun “common, general, FREE, OPEN, public” (9c., Modern French commun), from Latin communis “in common, public, shared by all or many; general, not specific; FAMILIAR, NOT PRETENTIOUS ,” from PIE *ko-moin-i- “held in common,” compound adjective formed from *ko- “TOGETHER” + *moi-n-, suffixed form of PIE root *MEI- (1) “change, EXCHANGE” , hence literally “SHARED BY ALL.”

    Old Latin Moenus “service, duty, burden,” from PIE *moi-n-es-, generally taken as a suffixed form of root *mei- (1) “to change, go, move” Watkins ; but Tucker says “more probably” from the OTHER PIE root *MEI- meaning “BIND,” so that munia = “OBLIGATIONS” and communis = “BOUND TOGETHER.”

    And as a final twist , maybe we could say that property rights or property law , whether communist or individualist , demand that the common be ‘bound together’ to ensure that the then applied laws are respected and able to be enforced en masse .

    In other words , how to have it all by being a common individual or an individual commoner , depending on the setting .

  • JoeCobb:

    Since collectivists draw their claim that “there is a Right to health care” from some sentimental idea about family members “in need.” The fallacy is one of relationship. To an immediate family member, one might owe a duty of care (and “ought implies can”) but to someone not related? Not even the hypothetical relationship of “member of same tribe” is sufficient in a modern society, where at-will employment and geographical mobility are the norms.

    The Individualist and libertarian claim is that Rights are inherent only in human individuals, not in tribes nor families, and clear private property and contract procedures are essential for flourishing social life. Charity would be a social “virtue” but not a moral obligation on anyone (outside immediate family, etc.).

    To call these socialist claims about “positive” Rights is to abuse the whole context of what a “Right” is. A right under a specific contract is one important kind, and it can be a “positive right.” But a Right in civil society, accruing to all humans at a certain point AFTER conception but before birth, is a sensible way to build a legal system that does not require extensive “discretion” or “omniscience” to find “Justice.” Approximately.

    • Crysangle:

      The moment anyone starts to assign a right they are constrictively labelling the individual and imposing on his freedom . There is a simple guide in this context , ‘Do no harm’ . In my opinion , it is all that needs to be taught for a society to flourish. The difficulty , in the real world , is defending oneself without harming those that would harm you . Maybe that is why perpetual vigilance is called for , possibly of oneself . It is rare for an attacker to continue if you do not participate , and the thief will not act whilst being watched . Only those that arrogantly lay claim to your possessions and wealth will be hard to deal with , which is why we are discussing here I suppose . In a good society they will be a minority , and should be kept so … which is a reminder to vigilance of the invitation to participate in the wider authorized forms of extortion, and of their deceit, as they are no more than an entrepreneurial intervention that tempts discord by the added incompetence of force .

  • Mark Humphrey:

    Thank you for this essay, Professor Machan. I always admire and enjoy your writing.

    One reason people easily drink the Kool-aid may be that they’ve been inculcated with toxic ideas pertaining to the nature of the world and their relationship to it. In a sense, people have uncritically absorbed anti-philosophy, the view that one can’t ever properly understand the world and man’s nature. Obviously, the heading of anti-philosophy covers a lot of disparate ideas, but they all disparage reason and objectivity. Of course, people absorb these toxic ideas to varying degrees, and a few reject bad ideas consistently.

    To the extent that people do renounce reason when it comes to the nature of existence, knowledge and ethics, it becomes easy to rationalize bad behavior in pursuit of whatever they feels like doing. If nothing is clear and certain, then people have lots of room to justify whatever it is they want to do.

    Also, overturning reason attacks the foundation of individualism, because what primarily distinguishes people as individuals is their thinking and character. If the world were characterized by contradictions and if people were unable to attain understanding, then whatever any person thinks or does is not important. One subjective preference is interchangeable with any other, neither better nor worse. So differences among individuals are seen as superficial and unimportant.

    When people use this frame of reference to make decisions, everything turns upside down. Vices become virtues, so that tax theft becomes “generosity”; waging aggressive wars that kill millions of helpless innocents becomes “just”; and ignoring and falsifying physical evidence to prop up some politically correct theory becomes “science”.

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