All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1973

The Rationale for Liberty

Mr. Foley is a partner in the firm of Souther, Spaulding, Kinsey, Williamson & Schwabe and practices law in Portland, Oregon.

Why freedom? What reason underlies the contention that individual liberty supplies the most desirable condition for human existence, and that coercive restraints should be held to the minimum?¹

A dual rationale appears, pragmatic and moral. Put simply, freedom must reign because it works and it is just.2

The Pragmatic Reason

The basic proposition to be proved: freedom works better than restraint in a significantly greater number of cases. Proof of this postulate will manifest a substantial reason to opt for liberty and avoid coercion, independent of any other argument.

Theories may be proven by different means. One may substantiate a supposition by conceptual rational analysis or by empirical proof. Both methods result in the identical conclusion when freedom forms the subject of inquiry. A study of human action in an ideal free market — a condition which has never existed — is only possible in the realm of the mind, yet the fruits of such an investigation impel the conclusion that only in the absence of unnecessary or man-concocted restraints will the creativity of mankind reach its zenith. An identical conclusion derives from a study of history: the freer the society, the greater the outpouring of ideas and products.3

A state or nation founded upon the principles of libertarian thought will witness production and distribution by free men, to all members of society resident within the borders, of a greater variety, safer, better, more durable and more desirable goods and services than will an oppressive state or nation in an identical setting. The Saracenic culture and the 19th century United States4 witnessed a magnificent outpouring of ideas, values and material goods in comparison with their counterpart cultures, even though some of the latter were blessed with even greater natural resources and a more commodious climate. Simple modern comparisons demonstrate the validity of the proposition: East Germany versus West Germany; Russia versus the United States. In every case, by every index, more men enjoy greater economic or material benefits as society becomes less totalitarian and more libertarian.

A commonplace assertion tarnishes the value of production of material goods. Such an approach will not withstand rigorous scrutiny. Say these traducers of creativity and innovation, man is a superfluous being so long as he aims no higher than to produce material goods for consumption and to reproduce the species; it is only when he is concerned with higher or finer motivations that his existence is justified.5

No libertarian questions the Query: Is this the meaning of the title of the autobiography of that amazing 20th century freedom philosopher, Albert Jay Nock? See, Nock, Albert Jay, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1943). Assuming, arguendo, this to be true, I submit that the moral rationale for liberty provided sufficient justification for the Nockian paean to individual freedom, right of the immaterialist to his belief, so long as he does not utilize coercive means to impose his. principles upon society. It does seem singular to preach such a philosophy at the same time the preacher satisfies his material wants at the expense of others by virtue of food stamps, public housing, and welfare dole — all extracted by force from the productive in society.

What’s Wrong With This?

I challenge the assertion that disparages the production of an avalanche of goods and services available for the choosing to all members of society. I can perceive no evil in creating value and exchanging that value with my neighbor for something that he has created, to the happiness of each of us. I do not find a system immoral that provides an ever-widening choice of necessaries and luxuries to the citizenry at an ever-decreasing real cost. I view no wrong in a philosophy that, by necessity, encourages the widest possible distribution of created products to all persons, in place of a closed mercantilist program which offers luxuries to the powerful or affluent and crumbs to the yeoman.

Remember well: free market capitalism offers the greatest comparative benefits to the poorer and least powerful individuals in society; the “poor” in the United States, even in that mixed bag which forms our economic system, fare far better than the wealthy in other countries. While the politically motivated recently have discovered the existence of the poor, one must remember that they have been with us always —there just were more of them a century ago.

Prior to the Market

Before the market became freer, few goods and services filtered to the sadder societal segments; one hears little of these people for a simple and pitiful reason: they died young and often of pestilence or starvation. Only the free market, with its abundance of food, clothing, and housing, with the freeing of creative men to conceive and develop new forms of medical assistance, has rendered the life of the erstwhile loser anything but short, dull, solitary and brutish. I can see no wrong in this system which so alleviates suffering and extends life.

The citizen who produces goods and services successfully in a restricted market may benefit from illiberal dislocation engendered by the politics of power. For example, the state may cede a producer a monopoly market, or grant to a worker a minimum wage. Such market interferences distort the supply, demand, and price of goods and services.

On the other hand, the producer or supplier who successfully markets goods and services in a free market does so because he is able to supply willing consumers with the best bargain: desirable products at an acceptable price. When he fails to satisfy people, or when his price becomes too high, or when a competitor markets a more desirable substitute, the producer either modifies his ways or leaves the market. He will not remain in business long unless, like TVA or Lockheed, he is forced upon an unwilling public by state intervention. A natural concomitant of this market dislocation appears to be the supplying of increasingly shoddy goods and services at increasingly high and inelastic prices.

Any man who freely supplies the wants of his fellowmen at the lowest bargained-for price, can hardly term himself superfluous by any objective justification. In the absence of a market, each individual would be forced to expend his efforts to supply all of his needs and those of his dependents. Such a situation allows precious little time for the production of luxuries and virtually none for creative thought.

Granted a market, and each man produces his specialty — “does his thing” in modern argot. He becomes proficient at his task, much more so than if he had to perform the myriad chores of farmer, weaver, tanner, builder, plumber, doctor, herdsman, and so on. He becomes able to devote a share of his time to pleasurable and creative activities, or just plain relaxation if he chooses. He supplies his wants by free trade, asking such price for the value he has created at a point where he can profit the most by securing the goods and services he desires. As he becomes more efficient at his chosen production, his neighbor improves his lot because the neighbor is enabled to buy better quality goods and services at ever-decreasing prices, thus permitting the accumulation of more and better products.

Supplying Cornflakes

Consider a simple example, an ordinary yet honorable profession, and measure the immaterialist claim against the seen and the unseen consequences.6 Suppose I make and sell cornflakes, charging a price which will produce the greatest profit, and employing no deceit in my business. The immaterialist focuses upon the seen effect: I take otherwise unused or uneconomically employed goods and services and, using my efforts and my stored-up labor (capital), I create a new product which is desired by some of my fellowmen; I sell to them and receive money which I expend as I like.

The perceptive observer considers the rest of the sequence, the unseen consequence. One of my customers, freed from the production of his own food and shelter (partially by my entrepreneurial efforts) studies long hours until he becomes qualified to impart knowledge at a university. The young people who flock to his classes include a brilliant youth who, some day, partly because of the exposure to the professor’s mind, will discover a cure for cancer. Another customer, freed from the drudgery of toil in the fields, composes a magnificent anthem which brings pleasure to generations yet unborn. A third consumer, of indeterminate occupation, likewise freed from toil, finds time to become a friend to yet another individual who needs one at that particular moment. Still other customers have stories to tell, some simple, some profound, but each in his own way sending shockwaves of benefit through the lives of others. How can I, even a simple producer of a plain product, term myself superfluous if these events follow in cause-and-effect fashion?

Obviously, I can lay no valid claim to all good things that flow from the consumption of my cornflakes, any more than I can be charged with complicity in the crimes perpetrated by other, more odious, characters who likewise enjoy my product. The salient point adduced: uncoercive undeceitful production of goods and services relieves other individuals of the necessity of production of those same goods and services if that is their choice; with the unstructured time thus created, consumers of those products are provided with the opportunity to partake of other activities7 which may benefit themselves and others. Whether, and to what extent, the freed man engages in creative endeavors resides solely within his own free choice. The benefit granted by the innovator or producer to the customer is a gift of a more meaningful freedom, possibly the highest grant which one individual can bestow upon another.

The Moral Reason

The pragmatic rationale, standing independently, offers a complete defense to those who would challenge or limit man’s liberty. Yet, the moral underpinnings of freedom afford an even more intense justification for individual liberty against the ravages of man-concocted restraints.8 Simply stated, freedom is desirable because it is just, moral and proper.

Perhaps this simplistic conclusion requires explanation and analysis to produce conviction. Man is a finite creature, limited in talent, knowledge, and ability, capable of improvement but incapable of perfection.9 No man, no matter how wonderfully prescient he seems when compared to his fellows, possesses the omniscience to control the lives of others. Indeed, many of us find it exceedingly difficult to adequately govern our own endeavors, yet clearly each of us possesses more innate knowledge concerning our own desires and direction than does any other individual. Compare and multiply the problem confronting each of us in the myriad decisions which must be made in each human life, with a multitude of persons, each exhibiting similar strengths and weaknesses, goals and drives, complexities and dreams, and the chore of social engineering boggles the imagination.

Those persons advocating the restriction of individual freedom beyond that necessary for the prevention of aggression and fraud and for the arbitration of interpersonal disputes must rest their case upon a single arrogant assumption: some man, or group of men, no different in essence from the rest of us, cursed with the identical finiteness which afflicts us all, should be empowered, by virtue of strength, wisdom, or talent of some undefined nature, to restrict the actions of others and to choose alternatives in their stead.

The Nature of Mankind Calls for Freedom of Choice

I cannot accede to embrace this proposition. It fails to square with the nature of mankind, with reality as I perceive it. It ignores the fact that no man, however talented, possesses the innate or acquired ability to choose for others and to make demonstrably better choices. If I choose Cheer for my wash in place of Bold, who is to say that I have made an incorrect choice? Perhaps one product manifests different characteristics than the other, and rational reasons persuade many to choose in conformity with those characteristics; this fact does not logically prove that one is better, safer, or more appropriate for my use, given my nature, my goals, and my needs. Only I am privy to the information necessary to an informed choice. What is right for you may very well be wrong, or less satisfactory, for me. Thus, only I should be privileged to make my choice.

In such manner, we can demonstrate rationally that free choice should inhere in each acting, purposive being as only he can wisely choose. The moral justification for liberty resides on a more fundamental base. Each individual should be allowed to choose among available alternatives because he is a purposive being, capable of charting his own destiny. If we grant to each person the right to life,¹º then the right to liberty in the broadest sense naturally follows. Life encompasses purpose and choice; a slave lacking free choice becomes less than human to the extent his choice is restricted; man enslaves other men to the extent that he, solely or collectively, inhibits a selection of alternatives; moral man ought not to coerce his fellows.

Restrictive Methods Cannot Serve the Ends of Freedom

A third moral tenet appears when we recall Emerson’s axiom” that the ends pre-exist in the means. Just results cannot follow from coercive actions. I cannot make you believe in God by compelling you to attend religious services, nor can I coerce my neighbor into the production of better goods and services by the tacit or explicit threat of violence. Often the opposite results derive from the application of force. Because I am not better qualified by intrinsic worth to judge how even one of my fellowmen should live his life in even the smallest particular, it forms the height of arrogance for me to exercise compulsion against him, no matter how foolish he appears to be. Subtly related to this premise we discover the equally valid norm that one man cannot morally force another to do his bidding because to do so would not only render the object of compulsion less human but also fail to achieve just and desirable results because of the restrictive means employed in the action.

From these simple examples we deduce the valid rule that morally freedom is right and restriction is wrong. Notice that coercive man does not improve his position by banding together with others to form a collective which will force a decision on another or restrict the subject’s alternatives. Logically, denuded of needless trappings, the state consists of collective force — the majority or currently most powerful individuals produce a cohesive force in a given territorial unit within which they limit the alternatives available to other men. Coercive force becomes no more or less restrictive or evil when exercised by conspiracy or agreement. Individual man bears moral responsibility for every choice made in life, and he must be prepared to accept the moral consequence of each act notwithstanding the fact that some or all decisions were rendered under the aegis of committee, convention or majority rule. Pillage and looting do not diminish in ethical opprobrium when performed by claques or associations. Man cannot escape the moral consequences for an action by the alibi that he acted in harmony with the dictates of the United States Army, the Chamber of Commerce, or the National Democratic Committee.

Moral order and material benefits justify the condition of freedom. Rational man should demand no other course in life.



1 I have suggested elsewhere that the use of organized force should be limited to the deterrence of fraud and aggression and to the sanctioning of the administration of common justice. See, Foley, Ridgway K., Jr., “Individual Liberty and the Rule of Law,” 21 Freeman 357-378 (June 1971); 7 Willamette Law Journal 396-418 (November 1971).

2 One might substitute such open-textured semantic concepts as “right” or “moral” or “proper” for the word “just.”

3 These lessons appear over and over in the literature of freedom, from the simple and direct survey by Henry Grady Weaver [see, Weaver, Henry Grady, The Mainspring of Human Progress (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-the-Hudson, New York, 1953)] to the monumental classic analysis of Dr. Ludwig von Mises [see, von Mises, Ludwig, Human Action (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 3d revised edition, 1966)]. I will not attempt to duplicate these magnificent efforts, for the purpose of this essay is much more limited: to demonstrate the foundations of freedom.

4 Beware of the “GoldenAge” fallacy when considering the 19th century United States. See Footnote 1, op. cit.

6 No one thinker has employed the concept of the seen and the unseen like that amazing Frenchman, Frederic Bastiat. See, e.g., “What is Seen and What is Not Seen,” Bastiat, Frederic, Selected Essays on Political Economy (D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey, 1964) 1-50.

7 At least some of which apparently meet the vague criteria of the “finer things in life” set forth in the immaterialist hypothetical heretofore.

8 Mr. Leonard E. Read uses this phrase throughout his many writings in the defense of freedom; I cannot improve upon it and can only acknowledge the source with gratitude for his efforts. See, e.g., “Justice Versus Social Justice,” Read, Leonard E., Notes from FEE (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, May 1972).

9 See essay cited in Footnote 1, op. cit.

 8 Mr. Leonard E. Read uses this phrase throughout his many writings in the defense of freedom; I cannot improve upon it and can only acknowledge the source with gratitude for his efforts. See, e.g., “Justice Versus Social Justice,” Read, Leonard E., Notes from FEE (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, May 1972).

9 See essay cited in Footnote 1, op. cit.

¹º The meaning of the right to life deserves special and separate treatment. For purposes of this essay, the right of each individual human being to his own life, without interference or enslavement by others, is assumed.

11 This concept is stressed in the writings of Mr. Leonard E. Read. See, e.g., “The Bloom Pre-Exists in the Seed,” Read, Leonard E., Let Freedom Reign (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 1969) 78-86.



For Moral Conduct

Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, and responsibility for the arrangement of our own life according to our own conscience, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created in the free decision of the individual. Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.


  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.