All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1982

The Abstract Concept of Human Liberty

When it comes to using their brains, people fall into various classifications depending on their respective interests.

By far, the majority think and talk about people, themselves and others. The focus may range from behavioral examination all the way to gossip. The topic of humanity, either individually or in groups, is fascinating to most of us and to some will generate so much interest as to preclude inquiry at any other level.

In a number of instances, however, the events which are promulgated by human beings become a separate level of interest, thinking and discussion. The focus shifts to a degree and human happenings provide a stage for concentration and inquiry. The various news media concentrate at these two levels. Most of what we hear about and remain aware of in our day-to-day lives moves at the level of people or events.

Here and there, a different level appears. It is neither “higher” nor “lower” than the stratum of events but it is different and distinct from it. This is the fascination many find in material things, almost as though they were entities in themselves.

It is the miser who is so interested in coins that he cannot bear to spend them. Rather, he hoards them all, running avid fingers through them and adoring them as though they were members of his personal harem. It is the engineer, who is so captured by electronic gadgetry, for example, that he can think and talk of little else. It isn’t what the gadgets could do that seizes his attention, it is their existence, per se. It is often the artist who sees in his creations, or at times, in the creations of others, the be-all and the end-all of human purpose. People and events may come and go, but artistic creation goes on forever. Whether the musician, the sculptor, or the painter is considered, there is a magnetic pull from the works themselves. The only event worth chronicling is the creation of more music, statuary or pictures. The only person worth knowing is he who forms the new.

Most human beings, I may presume, have at least a passing interest in all three strata, but find themselves increasingly drawn to one of them. They are caught up with people, with events or with things, singly or in combination.

But there is a fourth tier of interest, and in consequence, a fourth tier of thought.

In the Realm of Ideas

There is a small remnant of mankind who are concerned with the abstract. It is in the realm of ideas that their minds flourish and reach fulfillment. While most ask about the who, the when, the what and the where, those who are lured by ideas themselves are challenged and inspired by the why and sometimes by the how.

It would be a vain conceit to refer to this meager few as an elitist group, for that provides elevation which may not be deserved. Plato would have been a member, yet his views of the ideal society and perfect justice may be the source of many of mankind’s ills. Karl Marx was clearly inspired by ideas and so was Hegel. It would hardly be fitting to award the former with elitist status, and the latter was often so obscure in what he wrote that it has been said that Hegel himself did not understand the ideas with which he labored.

If one may take up boldness with both hands, it might even be pointed out that the greatness of the Christian faith is to be found, not so much in the events reportedly surrounding the dramatic life of its originator, but in the ideas set forth.

The vast numbers of humanity do not deal with those ideas. They are captivated by events and personalities. So, with the passing of time, the church and its symbolism, its great art and its inspirational music receive what attention there is and the simple messages, such as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” are either forgotten altogether or spurned as nonsense. Who believes that? We have to be practical. Let the government do the loving, I’ll take whatever I can get!

Minds Wasted

The national educational edifice, not yet a state monopoly, gives every possible encouragement to on-the-job training, rarely mentioning the thinking that should be occurring both on and off the job.

The government encourages us all to jog. It is a dandy way to encourage a kind of euphoria in which the mind goes into neutral and we improve our health. Surely, anyone who owns slaves would seek to engender the same result. If slaves are physically healthy and innocent of thought they are more readily made to work and to produce for their masters.

This emphasis upon getting a job, accompanied by encouragement to go jogging, is not an evil in itself. But, in process, we are becoming a nation only half alert. The country is filled with technicians, athletes, artists and artisans so specialized that it rarely occurs to them that their specialty might become obsolete and they will have to fend for themselves. They presume that the job must be found to accommodate their specialty; they do not fit themselves, the job must be tailored to fit them.

Aside from their respective specialties, all have become spectators. We are “laid back,” almost in repose, except when prodded.

Never has a people existed which knows so much, and understands so little.

How Fares Freedom?

With this melancholy view as background, what is the status of freedom in the United States? It is clear that the grip each individual should have over the products of his own labor is gradually slipping over the last knot in the dangling rope.

We still look good insofar as speech and press are concerned, if we compare our situation with conditions abroad in most countries. But economic freedom is almost a thing of the past. The regulators bestride our affairs like the Colossus of Rhodes and few can make reasonable calculations for no one knows what the government will do next.

What of freedom? Unhappily, it seems to me that there are few who support it for its own sake. The vast number of those speaking up for freedom appear to have a clone mentality. They like to list themselves as supporters of liberty because they admire other individuals who are already so recognized and wish to be like them. “If it’s good enough for _____, it’s good enough for me.” To understand ideas is to cope with abstractions. But those who function at the level of people-interest rarely take the time to comprehend what freedom is all about.

They understand the broken body of a war-victim carried from some battlefield. They know that person has had his freedom violated. They can tell. They see the blood.

But they do not see into the heart of their neighbor, who, by tireless effort, great personal restraint and long years of rigid self-discipline has brought a business into existence. They do not recognize his loss of freedom when he is set upon by agents, attacked in the press, brought to trial, ridiculed and smeared before his peers for some ex-post-facto failure, such as “excessive” smoke emission. At the time the business was built science hadn’t decided that smoke was all that bad.

Now he will be fined, pilloried as a vicious, greedy exploiter. He may lose his business. Or, he may manage to survive by plunging into debt from which he might never emerge.

What was his crime? Providing a good that people voluntarily put-chased and, in process, keeping the cost within reason so his customers could benefit by the best then known.

A Concern for Power

Who knows about his loss of freedom? Those impressed by personalities are rarely moved. And few are more fickle. Reputation is built by the adoring masses who think and talk at people- to-people level. And let one cloud of suspicious circumstance arise and their heads pivot like the dandelion turning toward the sun seeking some new personality-idol on whom to throw their latest cloak of fame. Such thinking provides no spine for freedom lovers. They see no principles. Popularity and prestige provide the single lure.

What is the status of those interested in events within a freedom context? These are the lovers of excitement and their natural arena is politics. Their concept of abstractions is often limited to Machiavellian maneuvering and back door diplomacy. Those concerned with events are most likely to decry the merit of any principle. “Promise them anything, but win,” seems to be the universal clamor.

And, having won, what then? Why, then they must keep on winning. Those interested in events are interested in power. And once power is obtained, it must be forever kept and always enlarged and extended.

Those who think at this level clearly see the loss of freedom we all experience when other hands than theirs are on the tiller of the ship of state. “Give us the scepter!” they cry. “We will throw out those rascals and provide a government which will enforce freedom. We will reward the just and punish the unjust! Only those of us who understand freedom can be entrusted with the power to impose our wills upon all by force. The taxes we levy will be rightful taxes. The regulations we impose will be only for the good of Society.”

At this level, freedom and victory are equated. The positions of the serf and the master of the serfs are justified. Each has what he deserves.

Focus on Money and Profits

What of those who find fascination of things uppermost in their minds as they consider freedom? Ordinarily, the fascination here tends to centralize and focus on the question of money. Freedom becomes important because it means profits. Those thinking at this level usually forget that a free market has its merit because the customer is king. And, as customers rule, it is customer choice that finally determines who will profit and who will lose. A free market is a profit and loss system, with only the customers making the final decision.

In short, if one is free, one will have more money with which to buy more things with which to get more money. Here are often found those businessmen who speak from both sides of their mouths. They favor a free market until they face effective competition. Immediately, they clamor for protection against the dollar losses which will now accrue to them. The important item in their thinking is the dollars to be gained rather than the importance of deserving those dollars.

In fine, it seems to me that only that remnant which has taken the time to study freedom as an abstraction, as a body of thought, has any real comprehension of what it is all about. This group, by the very nature of the human mind, will in the foreseeable future be scant of numbers.

These are the thinkers who recognize that it is not their ability to be handsome, to be glib, to be elegant of manner, charming and poised which makes them important. That which makes them important is what they take to heart. They can be rough and crude so far as their exteriors are concerned. But if they comprehend freedom they will be loved, not because they can make headlines or because they know the “right” people. They will be loved because they are lovable; they live without violating the freedom of others and they extend and expand the abstract virtues of honesty, truthfulness, hard work, fortitude and individual courage, despite having to act alone on most occasions. In short, they set an example of personal merit and integrity with which the latent nobility in all of us can happily identify.

These are the same thinkers who will recognize that events, however dramatic and breath- taking, unless they adhere to principles, are performed almost by rote. There is a certain sameness to be found in all errors, large or small. Only those with principles blaze new trails, the most find excitement in each new cast of characters; yet the drama being played is the same old tragedy of error.

Our relatively free press is still around to give us the key. Here we will find a constant reiteration both in war and in elections. A murder is a murder; rape is rape and theft is theft. Only the names of the participants change. Firm in the center of all such headlined events is the violation of the freedom of some by others. Abstract thinkers know this and avoid such karmic repetition for themselves.

These same thinkers recognize that success in the accumulation of wealth does not relate to one’s ability to grab; but in one’s ability to attract the patronage he desires because of the merit of his offering. Deserved success is awarded like a prize. The fact that it is deserved is more important than the level of attainment, for such success arrives within the boundaries of freedom.

Human liberty is an abstraction. It is a concept not yet attained in any final way. Indeed, it will probably never be attained as a total condition, for there will always be malfunctioning human beings, just as there are well-functioning children who know nothing at all of any abstraction until they are taught.

The abstract concept of human liberty is one of the mightiest and most important intellectual attainments of our species. It provides us with a comprehensible, visible star of such celestial magnitude that all who wish can see it. As such, it serves the function of Polaris for those who comprehend its use. You can steer your life by it, even if you cannot reach it. But until you can see it cleanly, despite the mist of multitudes, the storm of events, the scudding clouds of things, until it stands out stark and bright in your own sky, you will probably find that you are pursuing some flickering lesser purpose. Should that be the case, the problem is readily resolved. Take a new sighting and steer closer to the full abstract meaning of the word.

  • Robert LeFevre (1911–1986) ran the Freedom School and Rampart College, founded in 1957. He had a legendary impact on a whole generation of libertarians.