You Can't Sell Freedom to a Starving Man


Of all the cliches denigrating liberty, the most pernicious consists of the comment, designed in any of its varying forms to terminate the conversation entirely, that "your ideals and ideas may be laudable, but you can’t talk liberty to a man with an empty belly or whose children want for food and clothing." This essay proposes to investigate the validity of that response.

* * * *

Freedom consists of the absence of organized, coercive restraint against individual human action.) It is indivisible in two respects: (1) restraint in one aspect of life affects creative action in other categories; (2) restraint of one member of society adversely affects all other men.

Consider the first postulate. One cannot enjoy meaningful liberty of association or freedom of speech while suffering under economic or political bondage. Freedom of speech or press offers an illusory value if the potential speaker or writer cannot purchase air time on radio or television, or a soap box, or newsprint from the governmentally-controlled factory, or a sound truck, either because of restrictive regulatory laws preventing free entry into the market, or by virtue of discriminatory norms against producers by means of economic controls, or because of debasement by means of state monopoly of the medium of exchange. The right to vote means little if the government apparatus counts results for but a single candidate, or if the state limits the access to the polling booth or ballot box by enactment and enforcement of civil and crimi­nal penalties.

Recur to the second proposition. Simply put, my freedom depends on yours. Deprivation of the rights of the slave affects the master in several discrete ways.

·          First, the predator must expend a portion of his creative energy in the destructive pursuit of con­straining his fief. Absent coercion, he could devote his entire energy resources to creative endeavors. Wars provide an apt example of squandered creativity: Witness the millions of barrels of oil (which could have heated homes and pro­pelled automobiles) wasted in recent violence.

·          Second, looters lose the chance to thrive upon the created value which the slave, if free, would pro­duce and trade for other goods, services and ideas. The material well-being of any society depends upon the aggregate of creative out­put from each member, the profi­ciency of each individual producer, and the velocity of exchange (a factor of the voluntary channels of communication). Slaves produce only the amount necessary to main­tain life in a barely acceptable station and to avoid or reduce pain.

·          Third, masters lose qualitative­ly, since the quality of output diminishes with the introduction of compulsion. A coercive society enjoys fewer goods, begrudging ser­vices and less exciting ideas and culture than a free society.

·          Fourth, and perhaps most saliently, a slave state loses moral force as well as material largess, a subject discussed hereafter.

We may define liberty, then, in Leonard Read’s felicitous phrase, as the absence of man-concocted restraints upon creative human action.² At the ideal, each man should be entitled to manage his own life and to seek his own destiny as he sees fit, so long as he observes the equal and reciprocal freedom deserved by every other man. Such a concept limits the role of the state—the official restraining force imposed upon society—to preven­tion of aggression and coercive set­tlement of disputes by rules of common justice.

The Morality of Theft

Observation of the passing scene reveals many instances of looting and theft. One unschooled in the philosophy of freedom might immediately conclude that such a statement refers to the rapid increase in violent or deceitful crimes such as forgery, robbery, burglary, obtaining money by false pretenses, and shoplifting penalized by the several state or national governments. In fact, I refer to the unpenalized, officially-sanctioned, state-favored instances of theft which appear in guises too numerous to mention. Every occa­sion when the state takes property from an unwilling donor and gives it to some other individual affords an example of legalized plunder. Food stamps, subsidies to Penn Central and Lockheed Aircraft, social security, inflation, mandatory automobile insurance, civil tort rules which "diffuse" risks by imposing liability without fault—the list is truly endless, limited only by the ingenuity of men abusing power conferred upon them by the political system. Appellations of "transfer payments," "negative income taxation," "redistributive liability," and the like cannot cloak the true nature of the act: Theft.

Why decry the concept of theft, if performed by the pure of heart for a commendable purpose? After all, most proponents of these many and varied legislative or judicial enact­ments seek grand and deserving goals of preventing hunger, illness, and alienation or providing "neces­sary" goods and services. Few of them, despite their arrogance and predilection to power, really exemplify consummate evil.

The answer to the moral question lies in contemplation of ends and means. Few men of virtue and good will dispute the ideal of dispelling poverty, illness and loneliness, or of providing everyone with food for thought and body. Most observers agree upon goals—they diverge upon the means to the end. Those imbued with the freedom philoso­phy recognize that the end pre­exists in the means,³ that filthy means will defile innocent and praiseworthy ends.

Theft deserves disdain because it conflicts with fundamental morality, with the right to life, and with the precept of justice. A semi­nal moral rule commands treatment of individual human beings as ends, not as means—as persons of worth, not as objects to be molded. The thief treats the victim as a means to his own ends. The legally-protected thief performs a greater iniquity for he refuses to acknowledge the moral opprobrium necessarily attached to his crime; he treats the victim as unworthy to manage his own affairs.

Again, theft contradicts the con­cept of a human being’s right to live his life in accordance with the dictates of his conscience. Property consists of the value which man creates by the application of his being and his talents to natural resources, it can only be viewed rationally as an extension of a life. One lives by creating, one dies by stagnating. Thus, deprivation of property amounts to a partial tak­ing of human life. Moreover, the act of thievery devastates the funda­mental precept of justice: Respect for free individual choice.4 Approval of the power to forcibly or deceitful­ly deprive another of a part of his life necessarily contradicts a respect for the human right to choose be­tween alternatives.

In essence, comprehension of the moral questions associated with theft devolves to an inquiry: Why doesn’t might make right? Theft, after all, can only be accomplished by the application of stealth and trickery or by employment of per­sonal or political force. The fact and the scale of legally-sanctioned plunder renders this inquiry no mere philosopher’s debating point. It is all too real and affects each of us in striking and personal fashion.

Immanuel Kant5 provided some insight into the moral question of whether "might makes right" when he suggested the "silver rule" as a measuring rod: Individuals should shun actions which they would not will as universal rules of conduct. Few rational beings would volun­tarily choose to live in a world governed by force, without moral constraint of any kind. Chaos necessarily reigns, personal plan­ning becomes impossible; life termi­nates early and after an unpleasant duration. Such conditions would forestall even rudimentary exchange or growth of capital, relegating mankind to the cave and the forests from which it so recently and hesitatingly emerged. Merely imagining a world where theft, or rape, or murder occurred on a daily basis without official reprisal registers shock on the minds of most human beings. Such conduct would invite retaliation in the form of blood feuds, vigilante justice or civil war.

One could refute the contention that "might makes right" on three bases,6 any one of which would serve as sufficient justification for a contrary rule.

·          First, experience dispels any necessary correlation between force and propriety. Recorded history imparts example after example of the use of violence to accomplish improper goals—propriety mea­sured by the subjective values of those deprived of life, liberty or property. The neighborhood bully may be stronger than you, but that doesn’t mean he possesses any greater native intelligence, charm, wit, cultural accomplishments or other attributes more or less univer­sally desirable. Indeed, the contrary is more often true: The bully, be he individual, corporate or national in scope, often possesses a low, mean and not particularly endearing character.

·          Second, a related pragmatic reason flows from the Kantian silver rule: Force and power tend to breed more aggression, and man can not exist as well (or at all) spiritually or materially in a chaotic world regu­larly visited by coercion. Might­-makes-right just plain fails to work as well as the alternative. A better material and spiritual life with happier men and more abundant goods and services flows from co­operation, not coercion.

·          Third, common morality, denoted as natural law, the theory of natural rights, Christianity, rationality, or some other similar phrase suggests that men should not treat other men inhumanely. All three reasons interrelate, but the third or moral concept differs from its siblings in one important respect: It constitutes an appeal to faith rather than provable, empiri­cal fact. However, this feature does not deprive the tenet of validity. History manifests a growing recog­nition that each individual human being possesses inalienable natural rights merely because of his humanity, and that no other individual should trespass upon such rights in the absence of prior personal aggression. If this precept be relegated to the status of a mere value judgment, it certainly has gained ascendency in recent years although it still falls far short of universal acceptance. Since theft of private property involves the deprivation of an extension of one’s life—our essential humanity derives in part from the value we create—theft violates the principle of common morality or natural rights.

Therefore, one can say with the confidence undergirded by logic and natural law that theft in general constitutes an immoral act because might does not make right and power tends to deprive men of a portion of their life. It remains to consider whether theft can ever be justified under any circumstances.

The admonition, "you can’t sell freedom to a starving man," posses­ses two root assumptions denying the universality of the normative rule that theft constitutes immorality. If freedom varies, directly or inversely, with the visceral satisfactions of the human being, it follows that (1) hungry people need not abide by rules of common morality while productive people must follow such rules and, (2) freedom can not provide the precondition necessary to prevent want and poverty. Neither assump­tion can withstand rigorous analysis.

The Universality of Moral Conduct

No accepted ethical or religious code exempts starving men from adherence to established or accepted standards except if that code be based upon the doctrine of might-makes-right. The Marxian tenet "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" presupposes a social agency which will forcibly compel transfer from "producers" to "needy," as well as perform the concomitant func­tion of determining "ability" and "requirement." Every other system dependent upon transfer payments or social redistribution of income relies upon force. Only these systems justify the use of violence by hungry, ill-clothed, or other "needy" folk in order to satisfy their wants. Contrast the known axiological precepts handed down through history: Do the Judeo Christian heritage, the Islamic tra­dition, Hindu teachings or the like differentiate between producers and consumers insofar as their norma­tive conduct is concerned? Merely to state the question elicits a nega­tive response.

One should not confuse the asser­tion that the poor as well as the producer should obey the same rules with the question of whether the creator of goods, services, and ideas should share his abundance with others less fortunate on an individual and voluntary basis. The two concepts, while related, state two entirely different principles: (1) all men regardless of status should respect the lives, liberties, proper­ties, choices, and subjective values of all other individuals who do not commit aggression; (2) one blessed with a surfeit of material or spiritual goods should share with less fortunate individuals on a mutually-satisfying voluntary basis. A violation of the first axiom deserves human reprisal to revenge the breach, protect others similarly situated, and deter like conduct. No human sanction should attend a violation of the second axiom be­cause no human being possesses the right, the insight, or the ability to enforce their ethical norm since the norm itself depends upon subjective views of the Eternal Truth of the Universe.

Unjustifiable Intervention

In essence, the suggestion that hungry men can not appreciate liberty results from a confusion of these two separate postulates. Similarly, most justification of gov­ernment intervention into private lives stems from a perversion of these two distinct rules, each touch­ing a specific aspect of human action. The canard that an ill-fed individual can not comprehend freedom springs from a belief that it is proper to invade or destroy the human rights of others in order to secure a "good" end, such as the prevention of poverty or ill health.

In simple words, one should not destroy another’s right to choose except where that actor would not willingly select the course of action which would lead to sharing with others whom the party possessing power perceives as appropriate beneficiaries. This commingling of the two moral precepts renders each of them nugatory. The first axiom suffers because the exception guts the entire meaning. The second axiom falls because voluntarism be­comes coercion and thus obviates the entire concept. A sense of wrongdoing clouds the whole trans­action, leaving producer-victim, the transferring power, and poor reci­pient-beneficiary each with a per­vasive recognition of evil inherent in their affair which does not accord with moral law.

In like manner, the belief that moral rules need not be universally applied partakes of the corruption of the two separate axioms: You can’t sell freedom to a starving man because he is first justified in invad­ing the rights of others in order to satisfy his wants because they ethically should assist him.

Several reasons, each sufficient alone, support the proposition that moral conduct applies universally.

·          First, separate treatment betrays the egalitarian ideal, the subject of so much current prattle. Yet it is in this precise context that equality deserves meaning, for true juristic equality means equality before the law—equal rights, equal responsibilities.

·          Second, relative morality, on whatever basis, necessarily results in disillusionment, bitterness, hatred, envy, and other unlovely human attributes: In short, such a dichotomy will bring the sinister side of human nature to the fore. The taker will take even when the justification disappears, coming to believe that taking constitutes a personal right; the victim will resent this invasion of his life and fight back in many and myriad ways including the use of force and cun­ning, the production of shoddy goods, or a transfer to the taker class. Power and violence naturally tend to breed similar offspring.

·       Third, definition of terms ren­ders application of the distinction impractical if not impossible. Who shall define "production" and "need" (or who "starves"), and how shall these terms be defined? Star­vation and need vary by the minute, they represent highly subjective decisions, for almost every individual "needs" something he does not possess, given a world full of insatiable subjective wants and blessed with limited resources. Acceptance of a dual standard dependent upon hunger pangs would reduce morality to an ephemeral and transitory discipline subject to endless debate and a chaotic result: Victims who honest­ly believe that they fall within the taker class will take umbrage, they may even fight back, leading to unending aggression.

Thus, common sense makes manifest that moral rules must apply in an evenhanded manner. Starving men possess no right to invade the persons or property of others, nor are they justified or exempt from ethical rules preclud­ing such action. Freedom attaches equally to all men: It includes the freedom to fail as well as succeed. Life’s losers cannot vent their spleen on those who are more suc­cessful, and thereby receive moral approval.

Freedom Dispels Want

One who claims that "you can’t sell freedom to a starving man" really means "freedom is all right in its place, but these people are starv­ing and they will receive sustenance only if I coerce you into giving them food." This proposition fails on two counts.

·          First, the near-universal accep­tance of the second axiom (the obligation to share) and mankind’s natural empathy for fellow human beings in trouble virtually guaran­tees that no one shall starve in a free society. Strangely enough, the acceptance of the second axiom and man’s sympathetic response become heightened the more open society becomes; statism and compulsion cultivate ugliness, alienation and a lack of camaraderie. The guarantee against starvation does not insure against want of material things, mankind will always experience unfulfilled desires, given his nature of a being possessing insatiable wants in a world of limited resources.

·          Second, the statement seems to contend that a free society cannot produce and distribute those goods, services, and ideas required to alleviate starvation. The converse is true. A free market, operating with­out restraints upon human creative output, produces a greater abun­dance of material value than any other method known to mankind because the free market or volun­tary exchange system accords with the basic nature of man. The mar­ket reflects the competing subjec­tive values of each member of society and thus more nearly approximates the sum of all those desires.

This assertion of the material productiveness of the market does not rest merely upon unproved theo­ry; it gains support from empirical and historical fact. The freer the culture, the better clothed, fed and housed its citizens. The rapid improvements in the standard of living of all Americans during the nation’s first century derived from the relative freedom of the citizenry. Compare the average life span in medieval England (5 years) with that of the present day United States (70 years) and one immediately perceives that we heard relatively little about the "starving man" in history because he died so young. Few of the weal­thy in merrie olde England lived as well as the average high school dropout today.

Stripped to its essence, the cliche "you can’t sell freedom to a starving man" exemplifies a brazen demand by the one uttering the response that he be accorded the power to impose his will upon unwilling human beings—all in the good name of the elimination of poverty. Logic, common sense, empirical fact, and history demonstrate that just the contrary effect will take place, that coercion results in fewer individuals enjoying fewer goals which they subjectively value.

The Curse of Gradualism

One can interpret the phrase under discussion in yet another manner. It could mean that a hun­gry man will not listen to, or understand, the esoteric discussion of liberty and will voluntarily choose an aggressive society to alleviate his suffering. Thus, runs the argument, someone in power must appease the voracious masses before educating them to the vir­tues of liberty.

Insofar as the question depicts a communication problem, believers in liberty must hone their tools of expression to fit every need. Rela­tive freedom helped restore conflict-ravaged West Germany after the Second World War; the Germans, hungry as they were, accepted the ideas and responsibilities of freedom from Mr. Erhard. The con­cept of freedom and its relation to prosperity bear retelling because all of us need constant reminders, but conveyance of the idea to everyone, hungry or not, does not present difficult, let alone insolvable, prob­lems.

Insofar as the inquiry poses a question of consistency, libertarians must remain steadfast against the importunings of gradualism which would betray the ideal by imposing coercive tactics as a means of filling stomachs "temporarily."7 The "tem­porary" in this situation tends to become ingrained and immutable, .misleading the unknowing into the assumption that coercion (1) has always been there and (2) is neces­sary to accomplish the end. The result: An inefficient and uneconomic United States Postal Service which has never been able to compete with private enterprise save for its monopolistic protec­tions, which constantly raises rates and reduces the quality of service, and which has incurred budget deficits almost every year for the past two centuries. It requires little imagination to appreciate the results if "feeding starving men" were left to the tender mercies of compulsive bureaucracy: The nation would perish within five years!


¹ For a detailed discussion see Foley, Ridg­way K., Jr., "Individual Liberty and the Rule of Law?’ ²¹ Freeman-³57-³78 (June ¹97¹), 7 Will, L.J. ³96-4¹8 (Dec. ¹97¹), and Foley, Ridgway K., Jr., "A Rationale For Liberty," 2³ Freeman ²²²-²²9 (April 197³).

² Read, Leonard E., "Justice versus Social Justice," Who’s Listening? (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on­Hudson, New York, ¹97³) 9³ et seq.

³ See Read, Leonard E., "The Bloom Pre-Exists in the Seed," Let Freedom Reign (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, ¹969) 78-86.

4 Foley, Ridgway K., Jr., "In Quest of

Justice,’ ²4 Freeman ³0¹-³¹º (May ¹974).

5 Kant, Immanuel, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (The Liberal Arts Press, New York, ¹949) ²¹.

6Obviously, this essay does not purport to deal with the questions of why might does not make right or with the nature and scope of an alternative postulate for mankind in great detail. Such an undertaking requires more extensive development than is requisite for the topic under discussion.

7 Read. Leonard E., "Right Now!", Notes From FEE (Foundation for Economic Educa­tion, Inc., Irivington-on-Hudson, New York) May ¹975 discusses the problems inherent in gradualism.



Lost Liberty

Those who contend in this day that the government of the United States owes a living to any citizen, or group of citizens, are forfeiting their own liberty and that of their fellowmen to a grasping government which can and will make beggars of men otherwise able to care for themselves and naturally inclined to be charitable toward others. Much of the apparent need for governmental aid today is strictly a product of too much government, not the other way around. When government forcibly deprives productive men of a third or more of their earnings, as it does now in this country, it has seriously reduced their opportunity to care for either the aged or the youthful unproductive.members of their own families. The cure for this situation lies in less government — not more; in greater individual opportunity — not less.

PAUL POIROT, The Pension Idea


December 1976

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December 2014

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