Freeman

ARTICLE

The Literature of Freedom

JUNE 01, 1956 by HENRY HAZLITT

Filed Under : Government Intervention, Liberty, Collectivism

Mr. Hazlitt, author of “Economics in One Lesson” and other libertarian works is a contributing editor of “Newsweek.”

The free man’s library is a descriptive and critical bibliography of works on the philosophy of individualism—“individualism” in a broad sense. The bibliography includes works which explain the workings and advantages of free trade, free enterprise, and free markets; which recognize the evils of excessive state power; and which champion the cause of individual freedom of worship, speech, and thought.

Such a compilation seemed to me to be increasingly urgent because so few writers and speakers on public questions today reveal any idea of the wealth, depth, and breadth of the literature of freedom. What threatens us today is not merely the outright totalitarian philosophies of fascism and communism, but the increasing drift of thought in the totalitarian direction. Many people today who complacently think of themselves as “middle-of-the-roaders” have no conception of the extent to which they have already taken over statist, socialist, and collectivist assumptions—assumptions which, if logically followed out, must inevitably carry us further and further down the totalitarian road.

One of the crowning ironies of the present era is that it is precisely the people who flatteringly refer to themselves as “liberals” who have forgotten or repudiated the essence of the true liberal tradition. The typical butts of their ridicule are such writers as Adam Smith, Bastiat, Cobden (“the Manchester School”), and Herbert Spencer. Whatever errors any of these writers may have been guilty of individually, they were among the chief architects of true liberalism. Yet our modern “progressives” now refer to this whole philosophy contemptuously as laissez faire.

Many of today’s writers who are most eloquent in their arguments for liberty in fact preach philosophies that would destroy it. It seems to be typical of the books of our intelligentsia to praise one kind of liberty incessantly while disparaging or ridiculing another kind. The liberty that they so rightly praise is the liberty of thought and expression. But the liberty that they so foolishly denounce is economic liberty.

Unfortunately the authors who have fallen into this practice include some of the finest minds of our generation. (I think particularly of Bertrand Russell and the late Morris Cohen.) Such writers seem to me to be at least in part reflecting an occupational bias. Being writers and thinkers, they are acutely aware of the importance of liberty of writing and thinking. But they seem to attach scant value to economic liberty because they think of it not as applying to themselves but to businessmen. Such a judgment may be uncharitable; but it is certainly fair to say that they misprize economic liberty because, in spite of their brilliance in some directions, they lack the knowledge or understanding to recognize that when economic liberties are abridged or destroyed, all other liberties are abridged or destroyed with them. “Power over a man’s subsistence,” as Alexander Hamilton reminded us, “is power over his will.” And if we wish a more modern authority, we can quote no less a one than Leon Trotsky, the colleague of Lenin, who in 1937, in a moment of candor, pointed out clearly that: “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation: The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.”

Liberty is a whole, and to deny economic liberty is finally to destroy all liberty. Socialism is irreconcilable with freedom. This is the lesson that most of our modern philosophers and littérateurs have yet to learn.

Historically, the liberals fought against governmental tyranny; against governmental abridgment of freedom of speech and action; against governmental restrictions on agriculture, manufacture, and trade; against constant detailed governmental regulation, interference, and harassment at a hundred points; against (to use the phrases of the Declaration of Independence) “a multitude of new offices” and “swarms of officers”; against concentration of governmental power, particularly in the person of one man; against government by whim and favoritism. Historic liberalism called, on the other hand, for the Rule of Law, and for equality before the law. The older conservatives opposed many or most of these liberal demands because they believed in existing governmental interferences and sweeping governmental powers; or because they wished to retain their own special privileges and prerogatives; or simply because they were temperamentally fearful of altering the status quo, whatever it happened to be.

Those who flatteringly call themselves “liberals” today, and to whom confused opponents allow or even assign the name, are for nearly everything that the old liberals opposed. Most self-styled present-day “liberals,” particularly in America, are urging the constant extension of governmental power, of governmental intervention, of governmental “planning.” They constantly press for a greater concentration of governmental power, whether in the central government at the expense of the States and localities or in the hands of a one-man executive at the expense of any check, limitation, or even investigation by a legislature. And they look with favor on an ever-growing bureaucracy and on the spread of bureaucratic discretion at the expense of a Rule of Law. Those who oppose this trend toward a new despotism, on the other hand, and plead for the preservation of the ancient freedoms of the individual, are today’s conservatives. The intelligent conservative, in brief, is today the true defender of liberty.

This conclusion should not seem too paradoxical. It was always possible to reconcile intelligent conservatism with real liberalism. There is no conflict between wishing to conserve and hold the precious gains that have been achieved in the past, which is the aim of the true conservative, and wishing to carry those achievements even further, which is the aim of the true liberal.


The privilege of the writ of habeas
corpus shall not be suspended . . .

The liberty of person guaranteed in the foregoing language of our federal Constitution and paraphrased in our state constitutions needs occasional dramatization lest we forget its significance.
The following experiences of a young refugee from communist tyranny serve as a reminder that freedom includes respect for the dignity of each individual, thus enabling even a minority of one to challenge the authority of any power which would constrain him without due process of law.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

June 1956

ABOUT

HENRY HAZLITT

Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education. 

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