All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1974

Choice or Chains

Mr. Foley, a partner in Souther, Spaulding, Kinsey, Williamson & Schwabe, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

Human life is a continuing series of choices between alternatives. This characteristic distinguishes human beings from other creatures. Animals may opt for one alternative in lieu of another but no base mammal possesses the faculty of rational choice, nor do the beasts and birds know that they choose — they act by habit or instinct.

Man alone possesses, acquires and hones the innate and improvable capacity to perceive, study, measure, evaluate, and finally select between courses of action. True, some of our choices appear intuitive, instinctive or habitual upon superfluous examination: for example, a rational adult seldom lays his hand upon the activated burner of an electric range unless he intends to maim himself; we learn, often after being informed by our elders, sometimes after sobering and painful experience, that hot stoves usually burn flesh and cause severe pain. Animals may also perform with superficial similarity: a dog once caught in a trap will exhibit wariness about similar devices. But the distinction between the two situations rests with a rational selection of alternatives: a canine will seldom if ever encounter a trap in order to release an unrelated beast; a man may touch a hot stove in order to rescue a human being or an animal somehow endangered by the machine. Thus, man may choose to countermand an instinctive course of conduct because he perceives the risk but believes he must (or ought to) assume the hazard in order to secure some ultimate personal goal. Thus, man makes value judgments, a feat which describes his choices and distinguishes him from other living creatures.

No One Can or Should Destroy Another’s Right to Choose

If choice relates to the values held by individual, thinking, perceptive human beings, no one individual or group of individuals ought to deprive any other person or association of the right to choose, for no one can comprehend the values which make up the being of another person. Each individual is the product of the numerous concepts, mores, customs, experiences, deductions, intuitions and the like which constantly bombard and alter his being. Even if an all-knowing sage could look inside his neighbor’s soul and mind and discern, at a given moment of time, the content stowed within, his wisdom would be outdated the next instant when the subject encountered some new knowledge from within or without, or the effect of a new experience. Thus, no man can possibly garner the wisdom necessary to make a meaningful choice for another being. More saliently, however, no man ought to denigrate the humanness of one or more of his fellows by depriving him of his right to choose in even the smallest particular. Since making choices separates human beings from mere biological inhabitants of the universe, one who dares destroy the right of free choice in another being, by coercion, threats, or fraud, in even the most minute particular, to that extent destroys the essential humanity of his victim for our humanity depends upon our choice-making capacity and our worth as persons depends upon the value of our choices.

Deprivation of choice or displacement of alternatives abound in modern society. A group of individuals seize power and tell others within a given territory that they may not manufacture, distribute and sell hydroelectric power, or that they cannot construct a fourplex on their real estate, or that they must work for a given wage and no other, or that they must contribute a share of the cost of putting a man on another solar body, or that they may hire only certain individuals of a given race, creed or color, or any one of thousands of other matters, insignificant or substantial. In some instances, the actor loses his choice completely, or is presented with a Hobson’s Choice: do (or don’t do) this, or you will lose your life, or all your property, or your liberty. Either the choice becomes nonexistent (no one will work for more or less than the stated wage because of fear, and two actors are required to act) or the consequences devastate the alternative which those in power wish to avoid (no conscripted soldier will refuse to obey a battlefield command, even if immoral, because of fear of immediate death at the hands of his superior officer).

Power groups may also displace free choice by offering inducements to some actors at a cost to others. Ordinarily, consumers would prefer clean and inexpensive electric heat for their homes and apartments, and the majority of them would cast their dollar vote in the market place for such a service. However, the claque in power may determine that oil producers should receive a subsidy unavailable to electricity distributors; the granting of this subsidy enables the oil and gas manufacturer to offer his product more cheaply, thus encouraging a change in consumption habits by the consuming public.

Harmonious Differences

Despite the seemingly haphazard and random existence of billions of choosing individuals, all seeking their private goals, an amazing phenomenon occurs in a free and unfettered world: a concatenation of effort and effect where each actor can fully and freely release his or her creative energy. No coercive, man-planned system can create harmony among myriad individuals — history is filled with examples of millions crushed under the heel of the despot’s boot, or mutilated to fit Procustes’ Bed. Twentieth century liquidation of kulaks in Russia, peasants in China, and the Jews in Germany bears sad witness to the tyrant’s method of planning and its effect on human freedom.

What causes this meshing together of individual choice into a cohesive and rational whole? No man can fully comprehend and explain, any more than one can know and explain the phenomenon of electricity. But freedom, like electricity, offers substantial benefits to be enjoyed and appreciated. I need not understand how electricity develops, or how it is transmitted into my abode, in order to relax and bask in the generated warmth on a cold winter night. So, too, with liberty. I may not be able to explain why freedom works in bringing together myriad choice-making individuals into an ever higher order, but I can recognize the fact and cherish the result.

A partial explanation appears to reside in the nature of mankind. Each questing, choosing human seeks to act in harmony with his vision of ultimate truth. Each approaches that essential reality from a different view with a different capacity for perception and action. The result is a blending of choices; and each step closer to truth more perfectly harmonizes the several choices. Man calls the ultimate truth of the Universe by different names. For some of us, the real essence resides in a personal, all-powerful Being we call God, Allah, or Yahweh. For others, the universe appears as a never-ending expanse governed by the ultimate force of natural laws. For the statist, man is a wholly perfectible creature in a relativistic sphere; man represents no more than silly putty to be molded into perfection by the all-wise planner (who, oddly enough, rises up from the mass which is to be planned and programmed). The free man believes that man, finite and imperfectible but capable of improvement, represents an ultimate value in himself and he resides in a rational universe governed by immutable laws and an unchanging truth which he can partially espy. The statist firmly believes that a man created state can turn iron into gold (or, more saliently, special drawing rights into gold). The free man recognizes that, despite legislative and legalistic legerdemain, iron will remain iron, gold will remain gold, and never the twain shall meet.

The fact that the unprogrammed choices of diverse individuals can coordinate into an increasingly-improving world does not preclude disharmony from arising in human affairs from refusal to accept the burdens of liberty.

The libertarian avoids application of force and withstands the pangs attendant upon rejection, recognizing that freedom to live includes freedom to fail. He observes that values may conflict: A may wish a quiet life in a residential neighborhood; B may wish to play hard rock at 3 in the morning; C may opt to burn old rubber tires. In such instances, a free man seeks voluntary solutions to human problems, while the statist can only suggest force. Application of force necessarily deprives some man of his choice-making power and thereby denigrates his essential humanness.

Choice Represents an Absolute

Some things remain constant and eternal in a dynamic world. Choice is one of those matters. Creation occurs by choice, not chance. Only man or his Creator can create value, for only man and his Creator possess the power and ability to assess meaningful alternatives and to choose.

Choice, like truth, love and freedom, exhibits an absolute value as well as an absolute fact. Rightness or justice demands that each human being be permitted to exercise his essential humanness by an unfettered decision between alternatives.

Choice cannot be avoided. I choose when I fail to choose or when I refuse to choose. Failure or refusal to choose constitutes a deliberate and voluntary decision as much as a preference for rosebuds over carnations or an election between euthanasia and life. Man cannot escape choice, nor can he avoid its consequences. Choice pervades life and one cannot elude his responsibility by the affirmation that the decision represents the product of some group, committee or state. If I commit theft by taking value created by my neighbor by force or duress, I must bear the consequences of that conduct; I cannot hide behind the alibi that the majority of voters somehow sanctioned this looting. No association or committee need answer for its conduct; only individuals incur that burden. Which is to say that every act of choosing incurs moral consequences for which the individual is responsible.

Again, how can one ascribe moral consequences to every decision between alternatives? In some cases, all will recognize the obvious: the decision to kill, molest or defraud or not to kill, molest or defraud another human being. In other instances the relationship, while very real, seems less readily apparent. In this regard, we must remain cognizant of the fact that reality exists, with or without our personal perception of the matter.

The Seen and the Unseen

In discerning the moral consequences of mundane choices, we must recall Bastiat’s constant cry: Note the seen and the unseen! I lay my hand on a hot burner of a stove with the resultant searing of flesh. As a libertarian, I must concede that I am free to do with my life as I desire, without individual or group interference; I may maim myself or destroy myself. Thus, from the seen point of view what I have done by crippling my hand contains little moral effect. But consider the unseen: I must live with the consequences of that act. If unable to work because of my injury, I become dependent upon others for food, clothing and shelter and to the extent that I deprive the producer of value of the fruits of his labor I am responsible. If a promising pianist or mechanic, I deprive others of the value I could have produced and traded. The list is endless.

Again, I may choose to walk to work on Lancaster Street or on Lexington Street. How can we say that represents a moral choice? Suppose by taking Lancaster, I may witness an accident victim unattended, a scene I would not have encountered had I journeyed down Lexington. By venturing on Lancaster I came upon further circumstances which present further choices to me: shall I aid the victim like the good Samaritan or leave him because I wish to remain uninvolved. Remember, I cannot eschew choice so I must act. My choice of Lancaster over Lexington thus has more obvious moral overtones because of its relationship to subsequently developing situations and the decisions required thereby.

Simply put, every choice represents a moral choice not because of the particular act involved (taking Lancaster instead of Lexington) but by virtue of the intertwining of myriad choices into life itself. Because we reside in a causal world, decision interrelates with decision in a natural and immutable way and each of us must abide the ultimate responsibility for the way he lives his life. The morality of choice means that man must assume responsibility for all of the effects rationally generated by his choices.

Rousseau declared, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Oddly enough, Rousseau and his followers helped chain succeeding generations of men more brutally than before.

Free choice represents the sole means of avoiding fetters. Either you choose, or some other man or group of men will choose for you. To the extent that others dominate your choice, you are chained. Yet this singular fact remains: even though one voluntarily chooses chains or involuntarily loses his choice, he cannot escape the awful responsibility imposed upon human beings. It is this burden which so dismays the existentialists.

Man was created free, and he functions better in a state of liberty. He bears personal responsibility for his moral choices whether or not he is politically free. Therefore, he had best reside in a free dominion, fully responsible for his actions and choosing between the widest range of alternatives. To the extent that he lacks this choice, he loses his essential humanity and remains in the chains of slavery.  

  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.