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The Morality of Freedom

Doug Bandow

Mr. Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

Freedom. Presumably every reader of The Freeman is committed to this principle. But why? What good is it?

After I endorsed a federal budget “train wreck,” arguing that closing down the government would help people appreciate the value of freedom, one correspondent chided me: “What has freedom ever done for African-Americans?” The question is important. Consider the problems of poverty and crime. Consider the scourge of slavery and discrimination. Of what relevance is our abstract commitment to liberty?

Supporters of a free society sometimes seem to drift off into cant, denouncing the “state” and upholding “individuals.” They use the word “liberty” like a talisman, which they expect to mesmerize everyone. Critics of collectivism have long focused on economic analysis—inefficiency, lack of cost-effectiveness, and waste have all become bywords. And when the votes have been counted, they have lost.

This is not to say that practical arguments are irrelevant. Whether a policy works, and at what cost, are critical questions. The efficiency case for freedom is overwhelming.

But it is not the most important, or most convincing, argument. Advocates of statism have long understood this. They propose an increase in the minimum wage to help struggling families, not to eliminate imperfections in labor-management negotiations. They propose corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for automakers to save energy and the environment, not to make cars more cost-efficient. They propose safety regulations to save lives, not to ensure a proper balancing of costs and benefits in manufacturing. They propose the welfare state to assist the poor and elderly, not to standardize the provision of social services. In short, they emphasize the moral case for intervention.

Against which practical arguments usually fail. I want to ensure that poor families can feed themselves and you want to protect corporate profits. I want to preserve the environment for future generations and you want to let automakers make more money selling gas-guzzlers. I want to protect children’s lives and you want to ensure lower-cost production. I want to save the helpless and disadvantaged and you want to cut the deficit. There should be no surprise that advocates of a free society have so often lost.

But we have moral arguments too, stronger moral arguments since political freedom is, ultimately, based on moral principle. Rather than dividing society between ruled and rulers, we believe that all people are truly equal. That human beings really are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That they have the right to live their lives without outside interference, so long as they respect the rights of others. Liberty goes to the core of the human person, the right to live life with dignity, strive for success, build a family and community, worship God, and earn a living. Without freedom none of these is possible.

Of course, all of this sounds terribly abstract. But the practical implications, too, are profound, and can still be explained in moral terms. Consider the question posed by my correspondent: what has freedom done for African-Americans? Let’s turn it around: what has the lack of freedom done for African-Americans?

One need only visit an inner-city to see the horrendous consequences of statism. Where to start? Everyone has a right to form a family and household. But look at the impact of welfare, which has discouraged family formation and encouraged family break-up. Everyone should be able to choose a safe and effective school for one’s children. The government’s educational monopoly, however, has created schools which cannot even protect children from violence, let alone teach them to read. Everyone is entitled to walk the streets without being robbed, assaulted, or murdered. Yet drug prohibition, by creating an artificial criminal market, has fueled an epidemic of crime in urban America. Everyone should be able to find a job and get on the economic ladder of opportunity. Alas, government employment restrictions, like the minimum wage, occupational licensing, and the Davis-Bacon Act, make it hard for African-Americans to get work. And on and on.

The vision of a free society, then, is a profoundly moral one. It is a place where poor children are educated. It is a place in which poor women are not trapped in poverty. It is a place in which people do not drop to the floor when gunfights erupt outside their houses. It is a place in which those with political power do not constitute a privileged class. It is a place in which the phrase “equal opportunity” has real meaning.

We need to communicate that vision in both Washington policy debates and the larger political discourse of our nation. Advocates of a free society have been learning, and we are winning some battles because of it. Among these:

•       The minimum wage. Once advocates of freedom began to emphasize that the minimum wage destroys jobs rather than, say, contributes to inflation, they gained more listeners. Even reporters now cite the negative impact of the minimum on minority unemployment.

•       CAFE. Congress routinely ignored attacks on federal fuel standards when critics focused on the cost to manufacturers. But opponents of CAFE have had greater success after pointing out that CAFE, by forcing people into smaller cars, kills. The point is, when cars crash, the smaller one, along with its occupants, loses.

•       Food and Drug Administration. After the tragedy with thalidomide, Congress tightened FDA control over pharmaceuticals and no plea about the costs to U.S. manufacturers could move it. But as deregulators have shown how the FDA is actually killing people by delaying production of new drugs and devices and interfering with transmission of medical information, the FDA is promising to reform.

•       Education. Public education has long been one of the strongest bulwarks of the interventionist state, impervious to overwhelming evidence of failure. But the rhetoric of choice, especially for the inner city, has begun to divide liberals concerned about the interests of teachers’ unions from those concerned about the future of disadvantaged kids.

•       Welfare. Criticism of AFDC, Food Stamps, and the like on budget grounds long had only a limited effect. But the argument that the real crisis is human—a catastrophe in which young boys are growing up without fathers, becoming criminals, and being jailed or gunned down, and young girls are permanently wedding welfare and losing their sense of dignity, worth, and opportunity—is now accepted even by many on the Left.

Part of the lesson from these cases is to appeal to the emotion as well as the intellect. But it’s more than that. As much as policymakers like to criticize “ideologues,” they base many of their actions on principle, on what they think is right and wrong.

So we need to convince our fellow citizens that not all policy outcomes are equal in principle. Rather, there are moral implications of taxing and spending, regulating and intervening. To deny parents a choice on the education of their children, to lock disadvantaged kids in schools where they won’t learn and aren’t safe, is wrong, morally wrong. To buttress union wages through the minimum wage while throwing black teens out of work is wrong, morally wrong. To let government bureaucrats deny dying patients access to lifesaving products is wrong, morally wrong. In these cases freedom means opportunity, career, and life itself. Freedom matters.

It is unfortunately easy for liberty’s defenders to eschew moral arguments. The temptation is particularly strong for those within the Beltway, since Washington discourages appeals to principle on behalf of freedom. But the strongest case for the free society is philosophical. In the end, we aren’t likely to win until we are able to convince our fellow citizens that liberty is morally right.

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