All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1988

The Primacy of Freedom

Mr. Summers is a senior editor of this journal. This piece appeared in Ideas on Liberty: Essays in Honor of Paul L. Poirot, an anthology to mark Dr. Poirot’s thirty years as Managing Editor of The Freeman.

There is a time to ask basic questions. Now, as we mark the retirement of Dr. Paul L. Poirot, who has contributed so much time, energy, and wisdom to the cause of liberty, it is perhaps appropriate for each of us to ask himself: Why should I follow this man’s lead and dedicate myself to advancing the freedom philosophy?

On the surface, this seems like a trivial question. Liberty is good, and we should devote ourselves to good causes. But, as we all know, there are other things we can do with our lives and other ways to spend our money. Why is liberty so important that we should devote our efforts toward it when there are so many other worthy causes which cry for our attention and support?

One way to answer is to point out that the freedom philosophy, according to all available evidence, is correct. Both rational thought and historical study demonstrate that the free market, private property, limited government system works—it delivers higher living standards than any alternate system. If truth be known, then it is our duty to advance it.

But the same applies to other disciplines. We can find truth in mathematics, the arts, the sciences, and at least parts of various philosophical systems. If one’s concern is the truth—and i believe that our allegiance to the truth must precede our commitment to any endeavor—then the freedom philosophy should have no greater claim on our lives than any other demonstrably true system.

But the freedom philosophy is concerned with more than the truth. It is concerned with people. It analyzes the institutions and laws which enable people to prosper and grow, as well as the institutions and laws which have brought destitution, suffering, and death to millions of victims. The freedom philosophy is important because people are important.

This is not to trivialize other disciplines or to say that no one should work in a field which, for some of us, is less important than our overriding concern with freedom. If everyone were working for liberty to the exclusion of everything else, there would be no farmers, craftsmen, doctors, or any of the other people who keep us alive. Furthermore, if all intellectuals concerned themselves exclusively with the freedom philosophy, the world might be a freer place, but it would be devoid of the arts which enrich so many lives.

However, I think that, from time to time, we should take a long-term look at things. Sure, the arts and sciences are important. What would life be without them? But I think we also should give some thought to the institutions which enable such disciplines to flourish. We should ask ourselves why so many human advances have come from relatively free societies. We should ask why totalitarian nations not only have to steal our technology, they can’t even feed their own people.

Consider, in particular, medical care. I marvel at the advances in medicine and medical technology, and I applaud those who freely contribute their time and wealth to support medical care and research. There is no belittling their contribution. But again, I think it is important to give some thought to the social system which creates the wealth we contribute, as well as consider the institutions which best facilitate an adequate diet, sanitation, technological, biological, and chemical advances, and which foster a spirit of open inquiry. It also is instructive to consider first-hand reports of people who have. witnessed the appalling medical systems in totalitarian states.

If, as I contend, the freedom philosophy is so important, the question then becomes—not why should anyone devote his life to advancing this philosophy—but why don’t more people work for liberty? Why—when resources are being squandered at an incredible rate, when billions of people continue to suffer in abject poverty, when statism unleashes its fury in seemingly endless wars and acts of terrorism—why doesn’t the great mass of humanity cry “Enough!” and throw off the shackles of enslaving governments?

A Lack of Understanding

The answer, in short, is that they don’t understand. And we shouldn’t be surprised, since in most cases, people never have been told the basic precepts of the freedom philosophy. For more than a generation, the task of explaining these precepts has fallen largely on the shoulders of Paul Poirot, his colleagues at The Foundation for Economic Education, and the authors and speakers who work with this Foundation.

It is difficult to measure the success of these educational efforts. However, we see encouraging signs in our daily contacts with friends and acquaintances, as well as in the mass media. In particular, there seems to be a growing awareness of the need for economic incentives, of the dangers of protectionism, and of the disruptive consequences of an expansionary monetary policy.

This is a start. And FEE has played a major role in this growing understanding of basic economics. In fact, it can be argued that The Foundation for Economic Education has been the wellspring of this understanding. One can make an impressive list of the educators, journalists, clergymen, and political leaders who have received our publications and attended our seminars.

But this is not enough. For one thing, the level of economic illiteracy is still appalling. How many people can explain the causes of the Great Depression? How many know that the gas lines which plagued us in the 1970s had nothing to do with OPEC, and everything to do with price controls? How many have any understanding of how government spending is diverting billions of dollars from our nation’s capital base? The list could be expanded almost at will.

Beyond the baneful consequences of economic illiteracy lies an even more troubling failing—the inability to make connections. The next time there is a documentary about war, or famine, or death camps, watch it. Look long and hard at the suffering faces. Then ask yourself why these things happen. Can you explain why these are not natural occurrences, that they have economic and philosophical causes?

Or visit a hospital and marvel at the medicines and medical technology. Can you explain why these advances are available now, after several centuries of relative freedom in a few capitalist countries, while for thousands of years and in most nations the diseases we now conquer as a matter of course were a death sentence? Why here? Why now? And why not sooner?

I will not attempt to answer these and similar questions in the space of this essay. These questions have been raised and answered for more than a generation in the pages of The Freeman, FEE’s various books and pamphlets, and FEE lectures and seminars. The Foundation for Economic Education asks the important questions, and hundreds of thousands of lives have been influenced by this Foundation’s work.

But even if we could reach every man, woman, and child with sound economic arguments, even if we could sit them all down and lecture to them on economics for a month, it still wouldn’t be enough, because economics isn’t enough. Economics isn’t even the most important part of the case for freedom. This, in fact, is the primary thing for those of us engaged in economic education to remember.

The only reason I can down-play the role of economics in advancing the cause of liberty is that there is something which is so much more important: moral principles. Freedom is right because it is morally right. Government intervention in peaceful affairs—no matter at whose behest, and no matter what the excuse—is wrong.

Fortunately, while many people are turned off by economic arguments or have trouble with abstract concepts, almost everyone has some understanding of fight and wrong. The difficulty is in getting them to see that the free market, private property, limited government system is the only social system in keeping with sound moral principles. There is further difficulty in convincing people that when government, acting as someone’s agent, harms one person to benefit another, then the person who used the government for his own ends is as guilty of plundering another as if he had committed the act himself.

But this moral education can be done. In fact, for more than thirty years, Paul Poirot and his various authors did a masterful job of explaining moral principles and showing how they apply to public issues as well as to private matters.

By and large, The Freeman has been the only publication doing this vitally important work of attracting people to the freedom philosophy by presenting the free market, private property, limited government system as an ideal moral system—one we would want our children to inherit. This, more than anything else, is what has made The Foundation for Economic Education not only unique, but what makes it the hub of the entire freedom movement.

Let us thus, at this occasion, thank Paul Poirot for his tireless efforts, his wise counsel, and his steadfast commitment to the highest principles—and rededicate ourselves to upholding the moral principles which are the key to our success as individuals, as a Foundation, and as a nation. []

Paul L. Poirot

On December 6, 1987, Dr. Paul L. Poirot was honored for his many years of dedication to FEE, The Freeman, and the cause of liberty. The gathering included FEE trustees, current and former staff members, Freeman authors, and family and friends of Dr. Poirot.

Dr. Poirot joined the staff of FEE in 1949. When The Foundation began publishing The Freeman on a monthly basis in 1956, Dr. Poirot was named managing editor—a post he held for 30 years.

Upon his retirement last year, Dr. Poirot was elected a Trustee, with life tenure, of The Foundation for Economic Education.