All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1996

Inscrutable Freedom

Gradual and Silent Encroachments Abridge Freedom

In every age and in every country, there are two kinds of people—the lovers of freedom and the devotees of power. The former like to pursue their own good in their own way without infringing on the equal freedom of others. The devotees of power love to exercise control over others, and especially to command over the body politic. Both kinds wax eloquent about freedom which, to them, has very different meanings and connotations.

The lovers of individual freedom carefully delineate the scope of personal autonomy and absence of institutional restraint. They are concerned about their religious, political, and economic freedoms. Their most fundamental freedom of all is the personal freedom to move about, to come and go as they please without restraint. Most Americans are accustomed to this basic freedom; to them, it is a great writ of liberty, anchored in the Constitution: “The Privilege of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it” (Article 1, Section 9).

Religious freedom, that is, the freedom to believe in a divine power as the creator and ruler of the universe and the right to worship with people of one’s own choosing, was nonexistent during the Middle Ages. Before the great powers of Europe were willing to grant it, they waged numerous bloody wars—eight in France alone (1562-1598) and the bloodiest of all European wars, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Exhausted, ravished, and depopulated, the countries gradually learned to tolerate their religious differences. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution expressly affirms the freedom of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof.” Yet, in recent years, in the name of separation of church and state, American courts have sought to purge religion from all aspects of public life. And public education seeks to replace religion with “statism” which elevates government to the center of human concerns and makes it the source of economic care and bounty.

Political freedom, that is, the right to vote and hold public office for all members of society was virtually unknown before the nineteenth century. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed “political freedom to all citizens regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Nineteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to all citizens regardless of gender. Despite these Constitutional assurances many Americans were denied basic political rights until the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s and 70s.

Economic freedom, which is the individual right to pursue one’s own economic goals and objectives as long as no harm comes to others, is severely limited in most parts of the world. It is always ringed about by envy and covetousness which invite breaches of the peace and denial of economic freedom by people in power. Economic freedom is an easy prey to political force. It is the first thing that is lost when tyranny advances.

When the devotees of power speak of freedom they usually mean the freedom of the body politic, especially of its leaders holding the reins of government. Their concept of freedom is holistic and collectivistic. Hitler used to discourse about the freedom of the German people, Stalin about the freedom of the Soviet society, and Castro about the freedom of Cuba from imperialistic U.S.A. All forms of tyranny build on some collectivistic notion of freedom.

The concept of freedom most popular in the United States connotes the freedom from want and poverty, from poor housing, ill health, and poor education. It is an income concept based on entitlement and redistribution of income and wealth by government force. President Franklin D. Roosevelt elevated the “freedom from want” to a basic right of all Americans. Every president thereafter added a particular want to his freedom program. President Truman fought for higher minimum wages, increased Social Security benefits, and more aid for housing. President Eisenhower confirmed the entitlement programs begun by his Democratic predecessors. President Kennedy launched the New Frontier of federal aid to education, medical care for the aged under Social Security, and aid to depressed areas. President Johnson declared “war on poverty.” President Nixon imposed wage and price controls in order to alleviate poverty; Presidents Ford and Carter continued the Nixon controls. President Reagan consented to “catastrophic care” to Medicare and President Bush added a “kinder face” to the entitlement system. President Clinton is now laboring to extend and reorganize the healthcare system.

All these “freedoms” rest on the power of democratic majorities to exact income and wealth from the productive members of society. After all, government is no deus ex machina, no manna ex politia. Whether it is freedom from poor housing, inferior education, or pitiful healthcare, every political demand for improvement is a call for seizure of property from hapless taxpayers. Every entitlement is a legal right to lay hands on someone else’s income, every new call for more benefits a call for more appropriations.

In a speech to the Virginia Convention, James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, wisely observed: “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpation.” Having observed the gradual and silent encroachments in recent years, we may understand how they manage to proceed so successfully. No matter what we may think of public opinion, it carries all before it. The men in power who may have no opinion of their own appeal to it, proclaim it, and run with it. If public opinion longs for entitlements, they flatter the people and demand as a means for the procurement of the benefits a gradual surrender of their freedoms. Many people gladly submit; few withstand the temptations. If they resist, they are crushed.

The evils of tyranny are seen and felt only by those who resist it.


Hans F. Sennholz

  • Hans F. Sennholz (1922-2007) was Ludwig von Mises' first PhD student in the United States. He taught economics at Grove City College, 1956–1992, having been hired as department chair upon arrival. After he retired, he became president of the Foundation for Economic Education, 1992–1997.