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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Inclined to Liberty: The Futile Attempt to Suppress the Human Spirit

Some people, writes Louis Carabini, are naturally “inclined to liberty.” That is, their thoughts revolve around voluntary action to accomplish their objectives and solve problems. As a Freeman reader, you are probably such an individual. On the other hand, there are many others who are instinctively drawn to coercion to accomplish their objectives and solve problems—people who are, as Carabini puts it, “inclined to mastery.” They’re the sorts of people who blurt out, “There ought to be a law!” whenever they encounter something that bothers them. They like liberty for themselves, but think that everyone else needs to be told what to do.

In this short and accessible book, Carabini gives us 34 chapters, usually only two or three pages each, exploring some facet of the intellectual clash between “liberty” people and “mastery” people. The idea for the book, he explains, arose out of a dinner party where he found himself confronting several guests who did not share his libertarian philosophy.

One topic of conversation was that of corporate responsibility for employees, and someone offered the opinion that businesses should not be allowed to terminate workers only to increase their profits. Carabini proceeds to show why that “mastery” idea is a bad one. For one thing, if followed rigorously, it would mean that no profitable business would be allowed to reduce any expenditure, since doing so could cost some worker outside the company his job. For another, firms will be far less willing to hire people in the first place if required to employ them until the firms are in the red.

Carabini’s answer to the authoritarian is short, but it gets the reader thinking about important matters: how laws change people’s behavior and what the full ramifications might be. He’s opening up the mental toolkit of “liberty” people for inspection.

The Damage Done by Coercion

A theme that Carabini weaves into the book at many points is the damage that’s done by adopting the coercive mindset. One illustration is the way it leads to destructive “us versus them” political battles. “In a self-reliant society,” he writes, “pet peeves may keep us awake at night, but in a democratic society we can spend a lifetime of energy creating one pet peeve after another and offering our solution because we have a voice.” How true! Whereas people who are inclined to liberty take a live-and–let-live approach to life, those who are inclined to mastery turn to force (political or otherwise) to make others behave as they think they should. None of history’s religious wars and genocides, for example, can be blamed on the former.

Another example of the harm done by “mastery” people is the ruinous “War on Poverty” begun under President Johnson. Carabini points out that this “war” requires the government to take money from taxpayers and give it to poor people. That probably sounds fine to “mastery” types, but such coercive transfers backfire as the poor change from trying to advance on their own to finding ways to qualify for government welfare programs. At the same time, the taxpayers have less money to donate to voluntary groups that attack poverty through carefully targeted assistance. The latter is more effective and has none of the bad side effects of the former.

There are many books that comprehensively explore the issues that Carabini raises. That isn’t what he’s trying to do, although I’m sure he could. What he has given us is a lovely and spirited introduction to the philosophy that embraces liberty and rejects coercion.

Reinforcement for Difficult Times

The book is particularly timely. In 2009 the United States is in the midst of a war. On one side are people who believe that the major problems of society are due to bad actions by individuals, mostly in pursuit of monetary gain, and that action by the government is necessary to remedy those problems. On the other side are people who know that the major problems we face stem from inappropriate actions by government that have upset the spontaneous order of society. They contend that solutions can only come if government restores the liberty it has taken away. At this moment, the initiative is with the “mastery” crowd; liberty is fighting a desperate defensive action. Carabini’s book is a welcome reinforcement for our side.

Inclined to Liberty would be an excellent gift for a young person you would like to get started right in his thinking about government and economics. And if you could get one of those “mastery” types to read it, the book might just cause him to reconsider his beliefs.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.