All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1996

Liberty and Responsibility: Inseparable Ideals

Liberty Is Vulnerable to Decay into Mere License

Dr. More is president of Extropy Institute in Marina Del Rey, California. He may be reached at [email protected].

The founders of the American political and economic system felt a burning desire to establish a country of unprecedented liberty. Many of those who endured the arduous journey to the New World left behind religious oppression and rigid class systems. The highhanded rule of King George III and his demands for tribute sharpened resentment of State control. America, rooted in an ideal of liberty for all, marked a proud step forward in the evolution of human political arrangements.

America still inspires those seeking escape from or reform of their own country’s political arrangements, but its example no longer seems to shine as brightly. Despite significant remnants of creativity, entrepreneurship, and invention, there are more criminals, more hopeless people, more dependents and outright parasites. Too many people spend their energy and money engaged in legal battles rather than in producing. A vast bureaucracy has grown: a bureaucracy devoted to controlling productive activity and to growing ever larger.

Do such problems stem from allowing people too much liberty? Social commentators of diverse affiliation often suggest this, and call for tougher government regulation and control. As Charles Murray demonstrates in Losing Ground, both history and economic theory clearly show that such centralized approaches have failed and will fail. The solution lies not with central control but with the preservation and expansion of liberty. Vital to this solution is an appreciation of the relation between liberty and personal responsibility.

Liberty and Responsibility

Over the course of this century the ideals of liberty and personal responsibility have increasingly drifted apart. Personal responsibility cannot exist without liberty, and liberty will not endure without responsibility. Liberty without responsibility is license.

Liberty-as-license has become a widespread aspect of our culture. It manifests itself in many ways: in desires for freedom to do anything without restraint and without cost (someone else will bear the cost); the demand for income as a right (someone else will produce the income); the expectation of guaranteed commercial success (someone else will pay the costs of government subsidies and protection from foreign and “unfair” competition).

The survival of liberty requires personal responsibility. Without this connection our political institutions become a means for the shifting of blame, for compelling others to fix our problems, and for living off the efforts of others. As responsibility declines, the political system grows increasingly oppressive and burdensome. Politicians pass more laws telling people what to do and how to do it. Tax-funded handouts expand to support those who do not want to produce. The law increasingly allows unprincipled liability suits as the irresponsible seek an easy source of income. Government agencies take over, telling us what we can eat, what vitamins we may take, what risks we may assume, what we can read, and what we can paint and say.

If we do not take charge of ourselves we will soon find ourselves devaluing liberty. Choice can be confusing and frightening to those unused to it. It requires practice and commitment until it comes to feel natural. I remember reading about a visitor to the United States from the Soviet Union (as it was then). The writer told of how the Soviet visitor entered a drugstore looking for toothpaste. The variety of types and brands shocked him. He exclaimed how much easier it was in the Soviet Union, where the choice had been made for you. For liberty to remain attractive, we need to foster certain qualities of character.

Characteristics of Personal Responsibility

What does personal responsibility involve? Responsible self-direction crucially involves rationality: a commitment to see the world as accurately as possible rather than believing what seems easiest. A corollary of this is self-control. Once we see what we need to do to successfully pursue our goals, we must firmly set aside incompatible desires and resist distractions. Being responsible for ourselves also implies the virtue of productiveness—creating values that we can trade for other values to sustain ourselves. The virtue of honesty is an aspect of rationality and means the refusal to deceive ourselves or others. Honesty involves taking responsibility for our role in any situation instead of avoiding or shifting it. Being responsible for our lives necessarily also requires perseverance and persistence. If, after choosing a goal, we soon give up on it, we will fail ourselves, as well as show our unreliability to others.

If these and other virtuous qualities of character disappear from a society, liberty will also decline. Irresponsible people cease to value liberty and the challenges it presents. Liberty requires a widespread acceptance of personal responsibility. The converse is also true.

Responsibility Requires Liberty

Without the liberty to choose our own actions and make our own choices, we lose the qualities of responsibility and virtue that make us uniquely human. Our nature allows and requires us to make conscious choices rather than programming us for automatic responses. As a result, persons form differing purposes and goals. Political and economic liberty makes it possible for us to pursue these divergent ends. Without this freedom we find our choices constrained or distorted to fit the purposes of others. The more others force us to act for purposes not our own, the less able we will be to choose and pursue our own goals.

If we force a person to do “the right thing,” we can have little confidence in the moral worth of that action. Only freely chosen actions reflect character. Only when people do the right thing freely can we have confidence in their character. If they act as we think they should, and they do so out of virtues such as benevolence, productiveness, and integrity, then we know their good actions resulted from a good character. If they took the action out of fear, then we can know nothing about the goodness of their character. All we will know is that we have removed an opportunity for the free exercise of virtue.

Responsibility and the State

For most of us, license always feels easier than liberty. License means taking without giving, consuming without producing, and faking instead of facing reality. License has taken over from liberty in part because of the doctrine that there is no rational basis for values. If nothing is truly good or bad, if it’s all a matter of opinion, then why not follow your whims?

Magnifying the effects of this false relativist doctrine are our political and economic arrangements. Government intervention in the economy and personal life, along with the establishment of the welfare state, have undermined responsibility. The government produces nothing; it takes from some by taxation and regulation, and gives what it has taken to others (after taking a cut for itself). Since each new tax and each new regulation imposes costs on some of us, interventionism leads to a scramble to grab what we can before it’s taken from us. Government intervention thereby encourages us to focus on what we can get, rather than what we can create.

Welfarism and interventionism have both ignited claims to “positive rights”—rights to be given or guaranteed something. (The original constitutional rights were “negative”—rights to be free of interference, such as theft, government oppression, and fraud.) The United States government acts as if there are positive rights: a right to a guaranteed income or to health care (at someone else’s expense), a right to an apartment at a certain maximum rent, a right to get a job even against an employer’s wishes, or a right to sell a product without having to compete against overseas companies.

Those economic and social policies gradually break down the virtues needed for responsibility. Being responsible increasingly means giving up these short-term benefits. As each of us sees others being given money taken from us by taxation, or sees companies protected by subsidy or import controls, we begin to feel left out. We feel pressured to join in and grab our share, rather than work hard while others reap the benefits. Interventionism and welfarism act as a tax on responsibility. The higher this tax, the less responsibility we will see. That simple economic insight shows why, once the forces are set in motion, the overall level of intervention grows. As intervention grows, so does dissatisfaction and demands for “parity” or “fairness.”

I described the acceptance of these government “benefits” as short-term benefits. We can resist their temptations better if we bear in mind their heavy longer-term costs. Protectionism and industrial subsidies lead to complacency, stagnation, and slow growth. The high taxation needed to pay for intervention and welfare reduces savings, making investment funds expensive. Living on welfare breeds passivity, removes one from the learning process, and destroys work habits essential to adaptation and employment.

These interventionist government practices foster envy and resentment. Many Americans no longer feel they should have to earn their income: we have heard repeatedly that we are each entitled to a slice of “the pie,”—as if there were a single collectively owned and created pie, rather than individually created and owned goods. Increasingly Americans, like people all around the world, have latched on to the socialist doctrine of entitlement. It embodies license, not liberty. The belief in such entitlements is corrupting our character. If we do not have what we think we are entitled to, then someone is withholding it from us. Envy festers within us. Resentment of success replaces admiration.

America was founded on an ideal of liberty, with concomitant personal responsibility. Personal responsibility requires effort, and so liberty is always vulnerable to decay into mere license.

Let us continue to stress the central place of liberty in the American political system. Let us add to this a renewed appreciation of the vital connection of liberty and personal responsibility. When implemented personally, politically, and economically, we can expect a renewal of this country’s vigor, confidence, and pride.