Freedom and the Fear of Self-Responsibility

The trend away from freedom back to paternalism is decreasing individuals power

Liberty is under a renewed challenge and attack in the contemporary world. From “political correctness” and its accompanying growing totalitarian closed-mindedness at institutions of higher learning in both America and Europe, to the rebirth of economic nationalism with its rejection of freedom of trade, we are facing possible reductions in the degrees of individual liberty still remaining in our lives.

The question is, why? Various attempted answers have been offered by those deeply fearful of this direction, especially in “the West,” where the idea, ideal and practice of personal and economic freedom first emerged and took significant hold over the last three hundred years.

This trend has seemed most peculiar in the face of the dramatic, and “miraculous” transformation of the human condition in the last two hundred years, during which life for the ordinary person has gone from abject economic poverty and political oppression to a world of amazing affluence and material comfort for the vast, vast majority, with the institutionalization (if not always the practice) of respect for and protection of a wide array of civil liberties.

The Trend Away From Freedom, Back to Paternalism

This trend, alas, has been going on for some time. For instance, in 1936, the noted Swiss economist and political scientist, William E. Rappard (1883-1958) delivered a lecture in Philadelphia on, “The Relation of the Individual to the State.” Looking back at the trend of political and economic events in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Rappard explained:

“The revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century . . . were essentially revolts of the individual against the traditional state – expressions of his desire to emancipate himself from the ties and inhibitions which the traditional state had imposed on him . . . which one may define as the emancipation of the individual from the state, to the will of the individual.

“In the latter half of the nineteenth century and up to the present day, the individual, having emancipated himself from the state and having subjected the state to his will, has furthermore demanded of the state that it serve his material needs. Thereby he has complicated the machinery of the state to such a degree that he has fallen under subjection to it and has been threatened with losing control over it . . .

“The individual has increasingly demanded of the state services which the state is willing to render. Thereby, however, he has been led to return to that state an authority over himself which it was the main purpose of the revolutions in the beginning of the nineteenth century to shake and to break . . . The individual demanding that the state provide him with every security has thereby jeopardized his possession of that freedom for which his ancestors fought and bled.”

A major force behind the movement away from individual liberty and back towards economic collectivism has been political paternalism. A leading role has been played by the political and ideological intellectual elites who reject the market economy and its social and economic outcomes. The famous French social philosopher, Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-1987), in an article on “The Attitude of the Intellectuals to the Market Economy”(1951), offered the following reasons for their disapproval and dislike of the competitive market economy.

The Paternalist’s Dislikes for the Free Market

First, de Jouvenel suggested, intellectuals often consider the market economy “disorderly,” in that its processes and outcomes are not the results of a prior plan or design that assures that peoples’ actions and their results generate patterns of production and relative income shares that seem “just” and “rational.” In their eyes, the very nature and workings of the spontaneous order of the market make it suspect and inferior to a planned or properly regulated economic system.

Second, the market economy “exalts” the wrong values in society, in the view of many intellectuals. What is produced and the relative values placed upon them in the form of the prices they fetch on the market are considered misplaced and “irrational.” They believe that in the pursuit of private profit, “capitalism” guides people into wanting and buying the “wrong things.” These intellectuals are confident that they know what “society” really needs and the worth that should be placed on it.

And, third, a good number of intellectuals, argued de Jouvenel, consider that the market places them at a “disadvantage.” That is, they, who often focus on and deal with the “big ideas” and the “important” social issues and problems of the day, are forced to earn their living employed by private businessmen catering to the base and low consumer wants. The belief on the part of some is that they know how society should be organised better.Their talents are wasted and should be freed up from the petty pursuits of private enterprise. Instead, they and their talents should have a value, in terms of incomes received, which reflects their “true worth” to humanity and would enable them to have the time and resources for their pursuit of the “good,” “just” and “right,” and its implementation for the betterment of mankind.

All of these may be placed under a particular and general heading: political paternalism. This is the belief on the part of some that they know how the society should be organized better, as well as the real worth of things – physical and cultural – in the world, including the paternalist’s sense of his own superior knowledge and virtue compared to the general mass of society.

James M. Buchanan on the Fear of Freedom

But why would so many in society accept and submit to the control and command of others who arrogantly and presumptuously believe that they know how the rest should live, work, earn and associate, when it so often is in variance with how people have and would choose, live and interact with others if they were freely left alone to manage their own personal and family affairs?

The Nobel Laureate and co-founder of Public Choice Theory, James M. Buchanan (1919-2013) offered an explanation in an essay highlighting, “Afraid to Be Free: Dependency as Desideratum” (2005). He argued that besides the power and influence of political paternalism, the fact is that many in society do not want to be free and to bear the self-responsibility for choices and their outcomes that real freedom entails in a truly free society of the classical liberal type.

The heart of the dilemma, Buchanan said, was what he labeled “parental socialism”:

“With paternalism, we refer to the attitudes of elitists who seek to impose their own preferred values on others. With parentalism, in contrast, we refer to the attitudes of persons who seek to have values imposed upon them by other persons, by the state or by transcendental forces . . . It seems evident that many persons do not want to shoulder the final responsibility for their own actions. Many persons are, indeed, afraid to be free . . .

Relatively few persons are sufficiently strong, as individuals, to take on the full range of liberties and their accompanying responsibilities without seeking some substitute or replacement of the parental shelter... The collectivity – the state – steps in and relieves the individual of his responsibility as an independently choosing and acting adult. In exchange, of course, the state reduces the liberty of the individual to act as he might choose. But the order that the state, as parent, provides may be, for many persons, well worth the sacrifice in liberty...

Persons who are afraid to take on independent responsibility that necessarily goes with liberty demand that the state fill the parental role in their lives. They want to be told what to do and when to do it; they seek order rather than uncertainty, and order comes at an opportunity cost they seem willing to bear.”

All of us grow up in families in which we are nurtured, cared for, and guided in our choices and decisions for most of the years before we normally approach adulthood, at which point we go out on our own having to more completely make decisions and bear responsibility for our own actions.

Buchanan came to believe that that psychological dependency on mommy and daddy always being there to take care of us and make good on the mistakes we might make, was something we never escaped from. In place of actual parental family dependency, the individual needed, wanted and accepted political dependency through the modern interventionist-welfare state, as the substitute for what they had as a child.

This was reinforced, Buchanan suggested, by the secularization of society and the death of God. In earlier times, psychological fears and uncertainties could be partially ameliorated by the thought that “God will provide,” or “God cares for His children,” or that peace and comfort would come with God in the “next life.” But with diminished religious faith and belief, the State replaced God in His “providing” role for people in “this life.”

This led Buchanan to the pessimistic conclusion that this search for and desire by far too many people for a governmental “parent,” combined with political paternalism of ideological elites arrogantly wanting to manage and manipulate mankind meant that the interventionist-welfare state was likely to continue and to grow in the twenty-five century.

This was the weak point in the classical liberal, free market case and agenda, Buchanan lamented:

“The lacuna in classical liberalism lies in its failure to offer a satisfactory alternative to the socialist-collectivist thrust that reflects the pervasive desire for the parental role of the state. For persons who seek, even if unconsciously, dependence on the collectivity, the classical liberal argument for independence amounts to negation. Classical liberals have not involved themselves in the psychological elements of public support for or against the market order.

“Adherents of classical liberalism, and especially economists, have not been sufficiently concerned with preaching the gospel of independence. Classical liberalism, properly understood, demonstrates that persons can stand alone, that they need neither God nor the state to serve as surrogate parents. But this lesson has not been learned.”

Self-Responsibility and the American Experience

Is it really the case that a “fear of freedom” necessarily has to outweigh and win over the attraction and benefits of personal freedom and self-responsibility, including in the economic arena of the marketplace? I would like to offer the counter-argument that the history of the United States for almost the first century and a half of its existence is powerful proof that it need not be true.

During that earlier period in American history the State, at both the federal and state levels of government, took on little or no responsibility for what today is referred to as the State’s “welfare” functions. The “private sector” spontaneously provided those “intermediary institutions” of civil society that gave local and community support and assistance for those needing that “helping hand” and for the provision of many of the supposedly “public goods” functions not presumed to be the duty of the State. (See my article, “Individual Liberty and Civil Society”.)

Indeed, when Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) traveled through the United States in the 1830s one of the especially admirable qualities he observed among the Americans nearly everywhere he went was the penchant for forming voluntary associations and organizations to foster and fulfill various “social needs” in society. Said de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, (vol. 2, 1840):

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which they take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.

“The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner, they found hospitals, prisons, schools . . .

“I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and inducing them voluntarily to pursue it . . . Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.”

Throughout the nineteenth century in the United States and in Great Britain, as well, were vast networks of charitable organizations and community associations were formed to assist those needing support in the face of the misfortunes and uncertainties of everyday life. At the same time, private mutual assistance associations were formed, both profit and non-profit, to supply the insurances against the death of the family bread-winner, or accident and injury that threatened financial hardship, and to provide vocational training to enable those who fell upon “hard times” to become self-supporting individuals and family members. (See my article, “A World Without the Welfare State”.)

The spirit of liberty and self-responsibility was demonstrated not only by those born in the United States but by the willingness and decision of multitudes to leave the “old country” and make the journey to America to start over and have a “second chance in life.” The historian R.R. Palmer (1909-2002), in his History of the Modern World (1950), estimated that more than 60 million people left Europe between 1840 and 1914 to make their way for a new life in the Americas, with well over half of them coming to the United States.

There was no political safety net or government welfare guarantees for any of them. They chose freedom over political oppression, religious persecution and economic hardship in their native lands to bear the risks of coming to a new and unfamiliar land to have personal liberty and the opportunity for economic betterment for themselves and their families.  (See my article, “Freedom to Move: Personal Liberty or Government Control, Part I”.)

This is not to deny that for some in any society the fear of change, uncertainty and full responsibility for one’s own life and its outcomes may be too much for them to bear. But it need not reflect the spirit and attitudes of a majority of a population, if not most in a free society.

Wrong Ideas Create and Reinforce People’s Fears of Freedom

This takes us back to the influence and impact of political paternalists and their ideas to sway people’s thinking and perceptions of a free society by turning it all upside down. J. Laurence Laughlin (1850-1933), the founder of the economics department and longtime professor at the University of Chicago, and a strong and well-known defender of classical liberal ideas during his lifetime, emphasized this power of ideas in a wrong direction. In The Elements of Political Economy (1887), Laughlin explained and warned:

“Socialism, or the reliance on the state for help, stands in antagonism to self-help, or the activity of the individual. That body of people certainly is the strongest and the happiest in which each person is thinking for himself, is independent, self-respecting, self-confident, self-controlled, self-mastered. Whenever a man does a thing for himself he values it infinitely more than if it is done for him and he is better for having done it . . .

“If, on the other hand, men constantly hear it said that they are oppressed and downtrodden, deprived of their own, ground down by the rich, and that the state will set all things right for them in time, what other effect can that teaching have on the character and energy of the ignorant than the complete destruction of all self-help?

“They begin to believe that they can have commodities that they have not helped to produce. They begin to think that two and two make five. It is for this reason that socialistic teaching strikes at the root of individuality and independent character, and lowers the self-respect of men who ought to be taught self-reliance . . .

“The danger of enervating results flowing from dependence on the state for help should cause us to restrict the interference of legislation as far as possible; it should be permitted only when there is an absolute necessity, and even then it should be undertaken with hesitation . . . The right policy is a matter of supreme importance, and we should not like to see in our country the system of interference as exhibited in the paternal theory of government existing in France and Germany.”

There may be something in some people, maybe even a good number of people, that makes them crave the welfare state dependency about which James Buchanan was reasonably and justifiably concerned. But history suggests that it has not been and need not be the fate of any and every society.

What this epoch of welfare statism and political paternalism through which we have been and are living teaches us, in my opinion, is precisely the power and impact of ideas. Too many of us have come to think that the free market society is too dangerous, too unfair and unjust, too unstable and uncertain to allow us to feel confident that we “can do it on our own” through the opportunities offered by free enterprise and the voluntary associations of civil society.

But, why? Surely, due to more than anything else, because of the success of the false ideas promulgated by the political paternalist and collectivist ideologues who dominate government-funded and compelled public schooling, the institutions of higher learning with their oppressive and indoctrinating “political correctness,” and a news and information media that are themselves the product of this influence. They have been creating that “post-modern” world in which two plus two equals five, about which J. Laurence Laughlin warned us about 130 years ago.

This calls not for the pessimism and despair that even a thoughtful and insightful a thinker such as James Buchanan clearly was experiencing in his later years. He also believed that fiscal burdens and internal contradictions within the welfare state in its role as substitute “parent” might undermine its financial capacities to deliver on its promises and reduce its appeal to many looking to the future.

But what is really called for is what Buchanan pointed out to a weakness in the modern classical liberal agenda: a failure to explain and make appealing the possibilities and benefits of greater self-responsibility in the free society. The joys of personal independence and decision-making over a wider field of everyday life must be incorporated into the case for and attractiveness of human freedom and the opportunities offered by a truly competitive free market and the voluntary institutions of civil society.  

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