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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Privilege and a Worthy New Year’s Resolution Courtesy of F.A. Harper

"Truth has a power that cannot be touched by physical force. It is impossible to shoot a truth."

Some Americans take making New Year’s resolutions seriously. But over the years, I have been struck by how frequently the search for self-improvement ignores areas that would benefit people generally, not just individually. For instance, I have never heard someone resolve to advance liberty more in the coming year. In the same vein, I haven’t heard people resolve to give up their particular spot at the pig trough of government largesse in order to do so.

To help rectify that resolution irresolution requires that we realize the centrality of liberty to any good and moral life. F.A. Harper, who helped Leonard Read begin the Foundation of Economic Education, was an original member of the Mont Pelerin Society and founder of the Institute for Humane Studies, provides us a good place to turn because he recognized that “[t]he great social problem of our age is that of designing the preventive medicine that will stop the eroding liberty in the body politic.”

And in his 1949 Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery, about to celebrate its 70th anniversary, Harper offers us useful insight into what a resolution to advance liberty would look like. His chapters on “Special Privilege” and “Recovering Liberty” offer the key.

“Special Privilege”

“This should be the guiding rule: Grants of special privilege to any person or group of persons should be denied, because these grants can be made only by infringement on the rights of others—on liberty. “Benefits” for this and “benefits” for that should be denied. The granting of any of the so-called benefits by government violates the foundation of liberty—that a person should have the right to the product of his own labor, and the right to dispose of it or to keep any part of it as he desires.”

“Special privilege is any item of income or of position in the market…where the amount paid and received fails to reflect the judgment of ‘the judges of the market place’ as to its worth…where the judgment of the voters in the economic market place is overruled by their political servants.”

“The government, having no independent source of income except what it takes from the incomes of the citizens, cannot give a ‘benefit’ to any one person…without correspondingly denying another the right to the product of his labor.”

“’The power to tax is the power to destroy.’ Special privilege is of necessity the process of destruction in operation, always and everywhere.”

“The basis of a free society is the absence of parasitism. ..why not encourage a complete about-face in policy among all thinking citizens…Why not oppose special privilege for each and every person and group, rather than try to acquire compensatory parasitism for one’s self?”

“If the principle of ‘no special privilege’ is to prevail, it will be necessary to support that principle in its every application as a principle. It should be adopted as a uniform rule, across the board.”

“Recovering Liberty”

“It is important to be ever mindful that the foundations of liberty embrace the foundations of justice and morals, and of a moral civilization.”

“If lost liberty is to be regained, the general course to be followed is simple. Liberties that have been taken away from individuals must be restored; there can be no other answer.”

“Weeds the size of sequoia trees have grown up in our vineyard of liberty, and one cannot eliminate a forest of sequoia trees by using a jackknife at the tips of the branches.”

“The hope of citizens’ supervision of governmental expenditures…by the ‘democratic process’ is a futile hope…It is foolish to expect to recover liberty in that manner…The hope that [Americans] can maintain control over such a stupendous expenditure, merely by the device of a few of them going to the polls once in a while, is pure fantasy. Until it is realized to be a fantasy, we are destined to pursue futility, buoyed only by a little fleeting hope every two or four years at election time.”

“When once the power of free choice in the spending of their incomes has been abandoned by the citizens, and these economic rights surrendered to government, their liberty will have gone with it; it makes no difference how the governmental procedure is designed. Either you spend your own income as you deem best or someone spends it for you in some way that he deems best.”

“After liberty has been lost beyond a certain point, its recovery is difficult…The peaceful solution is to unwind the accumulated powers of government over the lives and incomes of the citizens. Eternal vigilance is not now enough; it is too late for that to be adequate, for the same reason that eternal vigilance of the barn door is no help after the horse has been stolen. Nor is the changing of top personnel in the government, or ‘reform governments,’ any answer to the basic problem. The gaining of better administration of an evil in the form of unwarranted power is a victory without virtue. The most efficient and best possible administration of slavery will not transform it into liberty.”

“Unwinding an illiberal government…the principle that should guide the process is: No special privilege, no trading of special privileges.”

“When the advocate of liberty speaks with disfavor about some program that would violate liberty, he is likely to be met with…’Your objection seems to be well reasoned…but how do you propose that the program be set up?’ The answer is that, consistent with liberty, you would have no ‘program’… To one who believes in liberty, liberty is a positive program of the highest order. To one who believes otherwise, the only ‘positive’ program is that which is destructive of liberty.”

“To one who has acquired a mastery of the subject of liberty…action consistent with liberty will become a positive program, supported by considered reasons. He will know why the so-called ‘positive’ programs, currently so popular, are programs that destroy liberty. Then…he will take a clear and firm position against each and every means of destroying or diluting liberty.”

“This method is…slow. But there are no shortcuts to liberty. Shortcuts taken in a haste for action usually violate the basic tenets of liberty in the process, and for that reason they lead one further from his intended goal.”

“Understanding [is] the only route to correct action. Nothing else will serve. If this process seems hopelessly slow, there should be the sustaining faith that liberty is in harmony with truth, and with the intended design of the human social order.”

“Truth has a power that cannot be touched by physical force. It is impossible to shoot a truth.”

In Liberty: A path to its recovery, F.A. Harper claimed: “The lover of liberty will find ways to be free.” Since asserting a love of liberty is the sine qua non (“without which not”) of regular FEE readers, it is hard to think of a better audience for his message.

He offered us the core of what could actually succeed in expanding liberty—eliminating special privilege. As he noted, we may hate that such progress would be slower than we wish, but slow progress toward liberty is far better than either no progress or efforts that are at variance with the liberty we want to restore. And those words are worth thinking about if we want 2019 to represent progress over 2018 beyond simply adding one more year to the count.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).