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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Freedom Philosophy as a Calling

When the fine folks at FEE and The Freeman recently asked me if I would like to write a regular online column, I briefly hesitated, thinking through my busy schedule and ongoing writing commitments.  But it was only briefly, as I knew this was something I had to make time for.  The same could be said for a recent hour I spent debating the merits of capitalism with a person I’d never met, and who wasn’t especially polite about it, in the comments section of a Facebook status message of a mutual friend.  As another libertarian friend said afterwards, “Every conversation is an opportunity to change the world, wherever it takes place.”  Indeed.

And just a couple of days ago, as I sat in a park in New Orleans with a friend and her son, I was checking my email only to have my friend, who is also an academic, turn to me and say, “Do you ever stop thinking about work?”  As I thought about how to answer that question seriously, I realized that it was based on a flawed premise:  that I perceive what I do as “work.”  That’s not the way it feels.  I answered, “In some sense, no, I don’t ever stop thinking about ‘work.’  But what I do does not feel like work. It’s a calling.  There’s a world out there that needs to be improved.”

For those of us who have imbibed the freedom philosophy, the world never looks the same as it did before.  We see all kinds of problems around us, both in the way the world is and the way many people think it should be, and we feel compelled to respond to them.  When people say things that we know are wrong, we are always ready to engage them (assuming that the social situation allows it to be done).  Those of us who are professional intellectuals feel, perhaps, “called” in this sense, given that we have the knowledge, skills, and reputation to reach more people and perhaps make more of a difference.

The danger of the language of a “calling,” of course, is that can slide to into dogma or in-your-face obnoxiousness.  We’ve all met the person who doesn’t know when to keep politics out of a social setting, and that’s not a person we want to be.  And it’s also not effective in getting the message of the freedom philosophy out.  Integral to this particular calling is trying our best to make our core values and behaviors conform to our preferred social order.  Peaceful exchange and social tolerance are not just political principles but guides to human interaction at all levels.

So engaging in Facebook comment threads, or checking my email at the park, or agreeing to take on this column in the face of a big to-do list, or the general inability of many like-minded folks to say “no” to one more talk or paper, or another trip or conference can all be understood as part of the calling that comes from understanding the freedom philosophy and seeing its power to change the world in ways that would improve the lives of billions of our fellow humans.

Each time we talk, civilly and with an open mind, to those who see the world differently, or write a letter to the editor, and or give our time or resources to deserving organizations, we are taking up that calling to make the world a better place.  For many of us, we just can’t help it.  But that’s okay because we can think of nothing more important that we could do than to respond to that calling.

I hope that this column becomes a place where my calling becomes part of your calling and helps you to spread the freedom philosophy.  I’ll do my best to live up to my end, and I hope you’ll do the same.  One glance at where the world has gone in the last few years should tell you that we need the freedom philosophy more than ever.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.