All Commentary
Saturday, November 1, 1986

The Forgotten Dream

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE this past summer.

In the biblical book of Daniel is a story about a king who dreamed a dream so disturbing that it wakened him from his sleep. Bewildered and troubled by his dream, the king decreed that his advisers be aroused and brought before him. The advisers were assembled, the signal for silence was given, and the king rose to his feet.

“I have dreamed a dream,” announced the king; “and my spirit was troubled to know the interpretation.” Then silence again reigned.

One person, bolder than the rest, broke the silence. Said he: “O king, live for ever! But tell thy servants the dream, that we may show the interpretation.”

All eyes turned to the king. The expression on his face changed. Those present sensed that something was strangely amiss. At long last the king again spoke. “I forget,” he said. “The thing has gone from me.”

The king, however, soon regained his composure. He instructed his advisers first to recover the lost dream and then to interpret it!

Men and women today who are committed to liberty face a task not unlike that thrust upon those royal advisers of old: the recovery of an all-but-forgotten dream. That dream, the dream of liberty and a social order fostering liberty, is perhaps as old as humanity. It found voice in the seers of ancient Israel and the thinkers of ancient Greece. It spoke at the signing of Magna Carta which made the rights of kings subservient to law and again in 1689 when the English Bill of Rights proclaimed that Parliament must also be so subservient. It was heard in the measured reasoning of John Locke and in the impassioned writings of the poet John Milton, who declared: “Our liberty is a blessing we have received from God himself. It is what we are born to. To lay this down at Caesar’s feet were a degrading of our very nature.”

The dream of liberty lured the Pilgrim Fathers to venture the Atlantic for a new and unspoiled land, placing their confidence in the dream and their own power to make that dream come true. It captured the hearts of the multitudes in this land; for years before the American Revolution was fought a veritable flood of tracts and books and letters and newspaper articles made real to the people the great principles of liberty, human rights, and limited government. It thundered in a Declaration of Independence which in its substance far exceeded its title, in a Constitution which built security amid the portents of catastrophe, and in a Bill of Rights which was the consummation of what began with Magna Carta—all men and women being perceived as the servile subjects of no one, certainly not of a government they themselves had made.

Thus a nation “conceived in liberty” was born. The dream had taken on flesh and blood, and a free people began to enjoy the material fruits of liberty.

Yet let me underscore the truth that for most of human history, liberty existed only as a dream. The free society, from the perspective of history, is an abnormality, a departure from the submission and tyranny which has been the normal lot of the human race. It is therefore, perhaps, not surprising that men and women enjoying the reality of liberty and its fruits should revert to the old and established ways, forgetting the dream—the ideas and ideals—of which the reality was born.

Yet such has most certainly happened. Free societies have departed from the dream that gave them birth, drifting back to the old authoritarian world of caste, of legally entrenched privileges, and of an economic system coordinated by political decrees. Sadly, many who sense that a once free people have departed from the principles which secured their liberty and furthered their material well-being cannot really say what those principles are. When asked to tell of the dream enshrining those principles they can only respond as did the king of old: “I forget. The thing has gone from me.” Hence the task that is ours: recovering an all-but-lost dream.

Ideas and ideals—dreams if you will—are fragile and fleeting. It may thus sound extravagant to suggest that such down-to-earth and concrete realities as political and economic structures can be born of ideas and ideals and, indeed, be destroyed by ideas and ideals. Yet I submit that a reading of history, both of the dis-rant past and of more recent years, substantiates such a claim. John Maynard Keynes, on this matter at least, was correct. His words warrant repetition: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economists. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back . . . [S]oon or late, it is ideas . . . which are dangerous for good or evil.” If we would defend liberty against its enemies, we must seek to recover for ourselves and for oth ers the all-but-forgotten dream of which the free society was born.


Perhaps the most invidious expression of our forgetfulness is our equation of the “free society” with “democracy.” It is perhaps helpful to remind ourselves of the singular lack of enthusiasm for “democracy” displayed by the Founding Fathers of this nation.

Consider the words of James Madison: “[D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Samuel Adams was no less suspicious of democracy: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Many similar statements could be cited, drawing on the words of those who made liberty a reality in this nation, and their forebears and contemporaries in the struggle for liberty from the Old World. “Democracy” was not the name of the dream they struggled to make a reality: Indeed, they perceived a very real tension between “democracy” and the goal for which they fought.

“Democracy” is a word with a long history. It looms large in The Republic of Plato and the political writings of Aristotle. Historically speaking, it signifies a particular answer to a very specific question: “Who shall be entrusted with the coercive power of government?” Shall that power be entrusted to an absolute monarch? To an aristocracy? To a plutocracy? To the majority of the populace? These are questions which exercised the minds of those who through the ages dreamed of liberty.

Yet such thinkers realized that these questions were secondary to the crucial question of what power should be ascribed to government, regardless of who exercised that power. The great cry of those who dreamed of a free society was not that majority role was desirable, but that tyranny was intolerable, be the tyranny that of a king despotically ruling his subjects or that of an aristocratic class despotically ruling their alleged inferiors or that of a majority despotically ruling a minority.

If by “democracy” one signifies simply majority role, there is no answer to the claim of James Madison that “on a candid examination of history” we shall find democracies characterized by “turbulence, violence, and abuse of power by the majority trampling on the rights of the minority.” Thus it was that Thomas Jefferson, discussing the powers of legislatures in Virginia, reminded his fellow-citizens that “[an] elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” To make the same point another way, the Founding Fathers and the thinkers whose works they built upon perceived that the words “despotism” and “tyranny” can only be defined in terms of the purposes for which force and the threat of force may be used by government. Specifying the identity of those who exercise the power of government says little or nothing about the purposes for which and circumstances in which that power may legitimately be used.

Those who dreamed of liberty and sought to make that dream come true were essentially agreed as to the function of government and thus as to the proper domain of government activity. “Governments are instituted among Men” to secure the equal liberty of all to formulate and strive to realize their own visions of the “good life.” The equal liberty of all precludes any attempt to realize such a vision by coercive violence. The proscription of such violence, the protection of individuals from any person or group of people initiating or threatening to initiate such violence, is the task of government. And that is all.

The seriousness with which this insistence once was taken is perhaps illustrated by Alexander Hamilton’s objections to the Bill of Rights: “I . . . affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution but would even be dangerous . . . . For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

The Purpose of Government

Our forefathers in the struggle for liberty were well aware that force is the essence of government, What is distinctive about the classical liberals’ understanding of government is the insistence that the sole legitimate purpose for which governments may exercise coercion is the protection of individuals from coercion. Should any government use its powers to promote one group at the expense of another, then that government becomes, in Frederic Bastiat’s words, an agency of “legal plunder.” Its edicts become a perversion of law, for the law, “instead of checking injustice, becomes the invincible weapon of injustice.”

Whether these edicts enjoy majority approval is irrelevant. Indeed, from the perspective of the classical liberals, to describe as “government under the law” the directives issued by elected representatives of the majority, however much these directives discriminate in favor of special interest groups, is to torture language. Such constitutes not “government under the law” but “lawless government.”

When I insist that the question, “For what purpose and in what circumstances is the coercive power of government appropriately used?” is distinct from the question, “Who should exercise that power?” I am not implying that the latter question is insignificant, or that an answer to this question in terms of democracy is to be rejected. What has failed to protect the liberties of all is not democracy as such but a particular form of democracy, namely, “unlimited democracy.” You may recall a much admired utterance of Sir Winston Churchill: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will he tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise; indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

That utterance troubles me. It suggests that the only choice we have is between democracy as today we know it—unlimited democracy—and no democracy at all. Yet in truth another choice is available, a choice between different kinds of democracy. A town-hall, participatory democracy will not generate the same rules as does a centralized, representative democracy. A democratically elected government of men and women who are, in Jefferson’s phrase, “tied down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution”—a Constitution limiting the powers of government to the protection of individuals from arbitrary aggression—cannot be identified with the “unlimited democracy” of rule by whatever decrees happen to enjoy the approval of the majority.

Those of us committed to liberty can, I think, take heart from the fact that many of our fellow citizens today sense that something has gone terribly wrong with government. Numerous voices have been raised deploring the “war of all against all” that has accompanied departures from the role of law, understood as rule by known, nonarbitrarily enforced general principles of just conduct equally applicable to all, in favor of rule by edicts advantaging some and disadvantaging others.

Ordinary people have seen the inevitable consequence of such departures. On the one hand, they see the emergence of well-organized special interest groups warring against each other in their attempts to exchange votes for legislative favors. On the other hand, they note the desperate attempts of politicians both to identify and satisfy a cluster of such groups so as to achieve re-election—and to expand the market for their services by legislative measures creating new special interest groups.

Many people likewise have sensed and resented the eroding of their individual liberty and the decline in their real standard of living that have accompanied the growth of big and intrusive government, and have unambiguously signaled that they are tired of creating by their own efforts goods and services consumed by the beneficiaries of big government. We can take heart from this growing grassroots suspicion that big government is the cause rather than the solution of many of the problems we face, and from the growing number of econo mists crying out for increasing deregulation of the sadly fettered market we know today.

Yet while we can properly take heart, our task takes on an increased rather than a lessened urgency. A disquiet over symptoms must be linked to an informed perception of root causes. Anger directed at particular beneficiaries of governmental coercion must be coupled with an understanding that the moment one permits government to favor some people at the expense of others, the question of which groups are to he favored and which are to be coercively frustrated becomes a numbers game and nothing more. The only way to stop political plundering is to renounce all government favors.

Ideally, the locus of indignation should be a government interfering with the noncoercive exercise of any individual’s autonomy, but maybe the more pragmatic point constitutes at least a starting point. Our task, in short, is to recover and remind both ourselves and our fellow citizens of an all but forgotten dream proclaiming that democracy is not enough, and that alongside the question as to who exercises the power of government goes the more important question as to what that power should be, regardless of who exercises it.

Property Rights

If the most invidious departure from the dream which gave birth to the free society is the equation of the free society and a “democratic society,” then the contemporary tendency to disparage and undermine both the idea and the reality of private property rights must come a close second.

The institution of private property rights was crucial in the thinking of those who for centuries kept alive the dream of a free society and of those who made the dream a reality. David Hume in his great Treatise of Human Nature (Book III, Part II, Section II) succinctly states what many in the classical liberal tradition said before him and have said since: “No one can doubt, that the convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this role, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.”

Certainly the Founding Fathers had no doubts as to the crucial importance of private property in a free society. The Virginia Bill of Rights opens thus: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.”

Today the institution of private property is very much under fire. The doctrinaire socialist and, indeed, the collectivist anarchist, perceive in private property the fundamental source of all social ills, agreeing with Jean Jacques Rousseau (a thinker whose destructive influence is unwisely overlooked by many defenders of liberty) who wrote:

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all. . . .’” (Discourse on Inequality, Part II)

Yet it is not so much the doctrinaire socialist whose attitude on private property rights should most concern us. Indeed, in one way I warm to these opponents of liberty, for they correctly perceive that in opposing individual liberty and the free society they must tackle the institution of private property head on and oppose that institution utterly. In a perverse way, such thinkers can help our cause, in that they make a well argued case for holding that the abolition of individual liberty and of the free society demands the abolition of private property rights.

More pernicious, in my judgment, are those who do not regard the institution of private property as important enough to warrant a head-on attack. At best, such people are prepared to acknowledge that private property rights are of limited value; for the most part they rarely think about such rights at all. This mentality displays itself in slogans slapped on cars which read, “Human rights before property rights!” and in documents such as the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, which in its draft form did not contain one reference to property rights, even though the word “rights” was tossed about like confetti.

In truth, however, the contrast between “human rights” and “property rights” is utterly vacuous. Property rights are human rights—the rights of men and women to determine how material things are used. The slick little slogan, “Human rights before property rights” depends for its effectiveness upon the mental picture it evokes: here are people with their hopes and fears, their loves and hates, their joys and sorrows; over there are dead and lifeless things. “Caring” human beings who speak of “human rights” concern themselves with the “people side” of the disjunction; Scrooge-like human beings who speak of “property rights” concern themselves with the “things side.” A moment’s thought should be sufficient to remind one that human beings are at least in part material beings whose physical survival depends on the use they make of material things, and hence that the right of people to determine the uses to which things are put is a singularly important human right.

Indeed, as Murray Rothbard has repeatedly pointed out, “human rights” unrelated to material realities signify nothing at all. For example, to be informed that one enjoys a “right” to free speech, but that one is not legally permitted to acquire a space one may fill with sound waves, is to be told one does not enjoy a “right” to free speech. To be told a given society respects the “right” to a free press, but that the purchase or borrowing or begging of paper, ink, or any sort of printing machine is forbidden, is to be told that the society in question does not respect the “right” to a free press. To proclaim that individuals have a “right” to life, but no “right” to seek and acquire food or shelter, is to proclaim that individuals do not have a “right” to life. “Human rights” that are not fleshed out in terms of the “rights” of people to control and use material things signify little or nothing.

Before going further, I should, perhaps, underscore that to assert that a person has a “right” to do X or to own Y, does not mean that he or she will successfully do X or successfully acquire Y. To say, for example, that someone has a “right” to own a watch is simply to say that he may engage in peaceful activities so as to acquire a watch, and that if successful, he is not obligated to surrender that watch. This “right” generates the purely negative obligation of other people to not coercively prevent this person from engaging in noncoercive actions to acquire a watch, and not coercively to make him surrender a watch so acquired. There is no “positive right” in the sense of some guarantee of being the possessor of a watch and certainly no positive obligation of someone to create a watch and surrender it to someone else. Simply, the “right” to property is negative.

The notion of some mysterious “guarantee” that all will succeed in their endeavors to acquire material goods, and the attendant obligation upon some individuals to create and surrender goods for the use of others, is no part of the age-old dream of individual liberty and the free society.

At the same time, it should be noted that a society respecting private property rights dramatically increases the probability that an individual will succeed in realizing his or her wish to use material things for some chosen purpose. The point is that some system of property rights is inescapable in any society. Given the ubiquitous reality of scarcity, someone has to decide how scarce resources are to be used. Is a particular area of land to be used to grow wheat at the cost of not growing oats? Are raw materials, labor, and time to be invested in the production of more transistor radios at the cost of not being used in the production of more pocket calculators? Are more goods to be consumed in the present at the cost of future capital, or is capital to be accumulated at the cost of present consumption? The decisions are inescapable, and must be made by some person or set of people.

The Role of Rules

Rules specifying who this person is or people are constitute rules specifying “property rights”—indeed, even a role to the effect that the person or gang who shoots straightest or punches hardest shall determine how material things are used is specifying “property rights”! In reality, human beings have come up with only three systems of “property rights”: rules based on tradition, rules based on political edict, and rules based on private ownership and voluntary exchange. The first—tradition—may work for a small, static, almost tribal society. The second and third seem the only options available to large and complex societies.

When property is controlled by political edicts, it is highly improbable that dissidents will be granted access to material goods so as to further their views. But when property is privately owned, in contrast, the chances of someone holding unpopular views being able to use material resources to further his beliefs are still considerable. Dissidents may pay the private owners of printing presses to print their tracts, or they may purchase or rent printing presses. The point is essentially that made by, among others, Alexander Hamilton: “Power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” When the men and women directly and indirectly controlling political structures determine who may use what material resources for what given ends, individual liberty and the free society are no more. Indeed, the classical liberals’ insistence upon limited government, and their insistence upon private property rights, go together. Private property rights constitute the critical limitation upon government. When all are at liberty to acquire property and enjoy security in their possession, liberty is secure. Conversely, as the “property rights” of individuals are attenuated—as the uses to which they may put their possessions are circumscribed or their freedom to dispose of what is theirs is narrowed—liberty is threatened.

Given that human beings are material creatures in a material world, liberty in any meaningful sense rests firmly on the institution of private property. Attenuate that institution, and you attenuate liberty; secure that institution, and you secure liberty. At the same time, by securing private property and thus limiting government, you make possible the emergence of the free market economy, an economic system ultimately resting upon individuals being able freely to determine, in the context of rules equally applicable to all, what they shall make of the time, skills, and material goods that are theirs, and freely exchanging the fruits of their efforts and labor.

It makes no sense to talk Of the free market in the absence of private property rights—indeed, what is freely exchanged in the marketplace is not simply physical objects but sets of rights in those objects: the right to take physical possession, the right to resell, the right to consume, the right to change the physical form of the object, the right to give or to lend or to rent that object to someone else, the right to destroy the object. The entire system turns on precisely defined and efficiently enforced private property rights, and with the system comes almost as a bonus the material plenty with which it is uniquely associated. I say “as a bonus” simply because even if it were not uniquely associated with a level of wealth creation unimaginable before the dream of liberty became a reality, I would still opt for the free market, private property system, since it alone is compatible with individual liberty and the free society.

At this juncture, it is not unreasonable to ask: What stake do the poor have in the private property system? This is being asked by many churchmen and churchwomen, who emphasize a moral imperative to consider the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable members of a community when judging an economic system.

! submit that any understanding person, who truly cares about the poor, will come out passionately in defense of private property rights. My reason is not merely the vaunted efficiency of capitalism, or the recognition that economic intervention harms the poor more than any other group. My ultimate reason, rather, is that it is the poorest and the weakest who need to have what is theirs protected from the politically powerful.

Certainly, the fight for property rights, historically speaking, was a struggle carried on by the least privileged and by those perceiving the least privileged as human beings whose “rights” were the same as anyone else’s. And the enemy against which they fought was invariably powerful castes who effectively controlled the statist apparatus of their day.

The fight for limited government and property rights, in large measure, was successful. The dream of liberty, after a long struggle, become a reality. Sadly, however, many beneficiaries of liberty grew complacent and forgetful. The dream was all but forgotten as constitutional government degenerated into unlimited democracy, and private property rights were subordinated to numerous other alleged rights. Hence our task: the task of recovering, both for ourselves and for our children, the forgotten dream of liberty.

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.