All Commentary
Thursday, March 24, 2016

Travel Where It’s Less Free — And More So

To See the World Differently, First See the World

Travel matters. It allows us to visit family and friends, to meet with colleagues, to celebrate marriages and to mourn deaths. My spring travel schedule includes all these events.

“Good Learning as well as Travel is a great Antidote against the Plague of Tyranny.” — Robert Molesworth

But travel does even more than that. It goes beyond cementing connections that already exist. Travel changes the world.

In 1694, the TSA was unknown, and the perils of travel were less about lost luggage, missed connections, and crying babies than about pirates and shipwrecks. In that year, the Irish peer and ambassador to Denmark, Robert Molesworth, published his account of a trip to Denmark. While the account is fascinating in its own right — Molesworth records Denmark’s voluntary transition from relative freedom to an absolute monarchy — it is Molesworth’s preface to the larger work that I have always found the most fascinating.

Molesworth uses his preface to argue for the great importance of travel as a part of education. But Molesworth does not mean the kind of fashionable upper-class travel so popular then (and now) as a way of providing young students with a touch of polish before they make their way into the real world. He is contemptuous of that sort of travel, noting that it gives a young person few skills, but generally “an affected Foppishness, or a filthy Disease” and that for all the expense parents go to, “We send them abroad Children, and bring them home great Boys.”

That kind of travel isn’t worth much.

But, Molesworth says, there is another kind of travel. This is travel undertaken with care and intent to countries less free than our home countries. Free as we are, we are free to experience unfreedom, temporarily, to try to understand it and to value what we have.

‘Tis a great, yet rare advantage to learn rightly how to prize Health without the expense of being Sick, but one may easily and cheaply grow sensible of the true value of Liberty by Travelling into such Countries for a Season as do not enjoy it.

Free as we are, we are free to experience unfreedom, temporarily, to try to understand it and to value what we have.

I had this experience early on in my years at Liberty Fund. We were hosting a conference in a small town outside of Budapest, and the evening conversation turned to life under the Communists. Academics my age told stories of coming back from vacations in Germany as children, being stopped at the Hungarian border, and having precious unapproved books removed from their cars. Another told me that he was the chair of his political science department during a particularly stringent Communist crackdown. One day he received a list of all the books he was responsible for removing from the shelves and burning.

I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know, but I asked anyway. What had he done with the books?

“Buried them, behind the garden shed. It was dangerous but … what else could I do?”

Stories like that, experiences like that, accumulated through travel, make freedom all the more precious.

Travel, like competition, is a discovery process. 

But Molesworth says we shouldn’t just go places that are less free than our homes. We should go places that are more free as well, places that have something excellent that we do not have.

For it were as fond to imagine we need not go abroad, and learn of others, because we have perhaps better Laws and Customs already than Foreigners, as it were not to Trade abroad, because we dwell in one of the plentifullest Parts of the World. But as our Merchants bring every day from barren Countries many useful things, which our own good one does not produce; so if the same care were taken to supply us with exact Accounts of the Constitutions, Manners, and Condition of other Nations, we might without doubt find out many things for our purpose, which now our mere Ignorance keeps us from being sensible that we want.

Travel, like competition (and silliness), is a discovery process. We cannot know what our country lacks until we see what other countries have — a perfect teapot, a better biscuit, a brilliant law for a convoluted issue, or small but sensible mores that makes life just a little nicer.

The poet Richard Wilbur reminds us, as well, that by getting outside of our normal round of acquaintance and understanding, we learn a great deal about the things that connect us as humans. His poem “To the Student Strikers” (1970) is not about traveling anywhere physically distant, but about learning to travel across mental distances as well. He counsels the students striking against the Vietnam War to

Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you,
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.

It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound in our street be the patient sound
Of your discourse.


They are your houses; the people are not unlike you;
Talk with them, then, and let it be done
Even for the grey wife of your nightmare sheriff
And the guardsman’s son.

Travel lets us teach and be taught. It allows us to listen and to be heard.

Where will you go this spring?