All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1962

Basis of Liberty


Dr. Russell recently has re-joined the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education. This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of the Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, Janu­ary 7, 1962.

Freedom Disappears When Economy Is Controlled

In one of his fables Aesop said: “A horse and a stag, feeding to­gether in a rich meadow, began fighting over which should have the best grass. The stag with his sharp horns got the better of the horse. So the horse asked the help of man. And man agreed, but sug­gested that his help might be more effective if he were permitted to ride the horse and guide him as he thought best. So the horse per­mitted man to put a saddle on his back and a bridle on his head. Thus they drove the stag from the meadow. But when the horse asked man to remove the bridle and sad­dle and set him free, man an­swered, ‘I never before knew what a useful drudge you are. And now that I have found what you are good for, you may rest assured that I will keep you to it.”

The Roman philosopher and poet, Horace, said of this fable: “This is the case of him, who, dreading poverty, parts with that invaluable jewel, Liberty; like a wretch as he is, he will be always subject to a tyrant of some sort or other, and be a slave forever; because his avaricious spirit knew not how to be contented with that moderate competency, which he might have possessed independent of all the world.”

Ever since man learned to write, one of his favorite subjects has been freedom and liberty. And almost always, it has been his own government that he most feared as the destroyer of his liberty. Further, various economic issues—primarily, the ownership of property and the control of one’s time and labor—have always been listed prominently among the measurements of liberty.

Justice Sutherland of our Su­preme Court clearly saw this connection when he said, “The in­dividual has three rights, equally sacred from arbitrary interfer­ence [from government]: the right to his life, the right to his liberty, the right to his property. These three rights are so bound together as to be essentially one right. To give a man his life, but to deny him his liberty, is to take from him all that makes his life worth living. To give him his liberty, but to take from him the property which is the fruit and badge of his liberty, is to still leave him a slave.”

Frederic Bastiat, the French political economist of the last cen­tury, phrased the same idea an­other way: “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”

A primary lesson of history is that liberty generally flourishes when goods are privately owned and distributed. I can find no ex­ample of real freedom for the people over a significant period of time when the means of produc­tion were mostly owned by the government, or by a restricted and self-perpetuating group who controlled the powers of govern­ment.

In addition, material prosperity for the people in general has surged forward whenever the pro­duction and distribution of goods and services have been determined by the automatic processes of com­petition in a free market. And prosperity has faltered (and often failed completely) whenever gov­ernmental controls over the eco­nomic activities of the people have grown onerous.

The particular form of govern­ment under which the people lived doesn’t appear to have made much difference, one way or the other. Liberty and prosperity have flour­ished under democracies—and have disappeared under democra­cies.

Liberty and prosperity have flourished under kings and em­perors—and have disappeared under kings and emperors.

Over the long haul, the extent of liberty and prosperity has al­ways hinged on the degree of private ownership and competition in a free market, and not on how many people voted or didn’t vote at a particular time.

As Aesop and Horace so clearly pointed out in their pungent com­ments on this subject, liberty is generally surrendered by the peo­ple themselves to their own gov­ernment—in an effort to get more of the material things of life. It has never worked for long.