Mr. Bearce is a free-lance writer in Houston, Texas.
More than one thoughtful observer has advised us that “history repeats itself because no one listens the first time.” This truth should challenge all those who truly value freedom. History is the tragic story of nations that have lost their liberty through indifference and complacency.
The reasons for the destruction and loss of freedom are clear. We are capable of understanding how freedom is threatened. Yet, despite the warnings of past experience, America and other relatively free nations of the world are committing the same mistakes which ultimately lead to economic collapse and political despotism.
Will we continue to ignore the lessons that should be learned from history regarding the conflict between liberty and tyranny?
Writing over a century ago, Frederic Bastiat asked the French people a similar question. With sound judgment and courage of conviction, he spoke out vigorously for freedom. Serving as a member of the French Legislative Assembly, he placed liberty in perspective—a timeless perspective we need if we are to remain free.
“Actually,” wrote Bastiat, “what is the political struggle that we witness? It is the instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty. And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties—liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of travel, of labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so?”
Consider Bastiat’s words. Consider them carefully. He understood freedom and defended it at a time when France was plunging toward complete socialism—“legal” despotism. In 1848, French politicians were proposing a multitude of idealistic plans for directing France’s political, social, and economic life. These blueprints for perfecting society were made in the name of “freedom,” “helping the poor,” “justice,” and so on. The socialists talked boldly about liberty and compassion, but their political/economic philosophy was nothing new. It was founded upon the same beliefs which had caused so much suffering in the past, so much oppression, misery, despotism.
Just as freedom was widely misunderstood during Bastiat’s day, there is widespread lack of understanding about freedom in the United States today. Many politicians, members of the mass media, those in the academic community, and just average citizens fail to comprehend the true meaning of freedom.
Freedom is the right of each individual to work toward the highest level of achievement consistent with his own effort and God-given abilities. True freedom is both the capacity and responsibility to exercise personal judgment. We have free choice, but we also have to abide by the consequences of our actions. This acceptance of personal accountability brings a justified sense of dignity, self-worth, and integrity to individuals. We learn by our mistakes and grow in our efforts to lead moral, productive lives. As we accept individual accountability, we develop according to how we use our physical and mental abilities.
Four Basic Principles
We have enjoyed the blessings of this freedom because we were at one time firmly committed to four basic principles of liberty. Individuals are free only when:
(1) They accept responsibility for their own daily lives,
(2) They are safe from criminal elements and internal strife,
(3) They are secure against foreign domination,
(4) They are safe from the abuse of domestic power and authority in the hands of their own government.
A deep, honest faith in individual freedom inspired the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Founding Fathers understood the four essentials of freedom, and they knew what was required to protect freedom. A free society must be founded upon just law and order. Government laws should be the just means of guarding each citizen’s rights—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Free people need the collective force of government authority, but that legal power must be clearly defined and restricted. We accept a certain amount of governmental authority in place of acting individually. Instead of everyone being his own policeman and F.B.I agent, we give these roles to the government. History, however, shows that governments have an eventual tendency to go beyond their legal authority, violating instead of protecting the rights of law-abiding individuals.
Such corruption and abuse of government power threatens freedom today. Our critical problem in America is a wayward political philosophy—a philosophy of government which rejects the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Whereas the Founding Fathers believed in limited government, we have allowed our federal government to grow, grow, grow. Most legislators continue to inform us solemnly that government can solve our problems, “correct” the economy, provide jobs, and otherwise map out America’s future.
Deadly as gangrene, the federal government gradually spreads and eats at the life of freedom—regardless of the truly courageous efforts of some in government to restrict government power and authority.
To the extent that the collective force of the federal government destroys personal accountability and self-responsibility, we will lose our liberties. It is a matter of government trying to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. To the extent we trust lawmakers to be the mighty problem-solvers of our real or imagined social/economic ills, we will see the deterioration of freedom.
The Power to Tax May Be a Means to Plunder
With the power of taxation, the lawmaker can tackle what he believes to be the problems facing society. By way of our tax dollars, Congress finances some of the projects which it thinks will be just, good, and right for society. Frederic Bastiat would call their attention to one aspect of such government financing:
“Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to send it in. If every person draws from the treasury the amount that he has put in it, it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But this procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of equalization only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the law does this, it is an instrument of plunder.”
Bastiat’s use of the word “plunder” may sound somewhat exaggerated or old-fashioned, but we ought to think about how our tax money is spent.
How much of it goes to the government’s legitimate responsibility of maintaining justice and providing for the national defense? On the other hand, what amount is used to finance domestic programs which benefit special-interest groups? How much is spent to obtain the votes of people demanding some “right” from the government—a right to guaranteed income, right to welfare, right to a subsidy, right to guaranteed jobs, right to a college grant, right to a guaranteed profit, and the like?
Those are false, non-existent rights, and they can be fulfilled by 100 Senators and 435 Congressmen only through plunder.
“But how is this legal plunder to be identified?” Bastiat asked. “Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”
A crime would be committed if Congressman Joe stole Senator Sam’s car. Both Joe and Sam, along with others in Congress, imitate such an offense when they use coercive legislation to take from some people in order to give to others. Legal plunder operates easily under the cloak of the “democratic process.” Being a freely elected official, a Senator or Congressman assumes that he has the right to enact laws favoring particular groups in society—even when this action deprives other citizens of their rightful earnings.
Although individuals who truly understand the proper functions of government see how and why elected officials act the way they do, the truth about government must be made available to those who do not comprehend the meaning of freedom. We should be able to clearly explain the nature of government force and authority—legitimate government power.
The Bounds of Lawful Defense
“What, then, is law?” Bastiat asked, speaking of government force and authority. “It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense. Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic re quirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the pre servation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?”
Our faculties include our intellects, talents, physical and mental abilities. Some of these are natural while others are acquired. They enable us to handle the responsibility of living. When millions of free individuals voluntarily use their faculties to work and produce, we have economic freedom—a capitalistic, free enterprise, free market system.
Actually, free enterprise or capitalism is not a stale, dull “system.” No self-appointed group of legislators or economic theorists designed it. Rather, free enterprise is the natural, vibrant collaboration of free individuals laboring together cooperatively, competitively, voluntarily. Economic freedom allows individuals to use their skills, wisdom, and energies to manage their own lives.
Free enterprise depends upon personal freedom and accountability, private property, and a free market. Economic freedom places the matter of living upon the shoulders of the individual. This is where it ought to be—not in the hands of government. Unless an individual can control and use his own possessions (private property and income) he cannot fully decide for himself how he will work, direct his own life, house and feed his family.
Choice in the Market Place
Working and associating with other free people, the individual finds himself in a free market. Here he has free choice. He can choose his own employment, rejecting the pay offered at other jobs if he so wishes. Between him and his employer there should be freedom to exchange a solid day’s work for a fair wage. At the supermarket or appliance store, the individual again expresses freedom of choice. Free enterprise enables him not only to go to different stores but to buy from a wide assortment of products and services. He is not forced to purchase goods he does not like or use the services of businesses he distrusts.
The “he” and the “individual” in all of this voluntary action are not abstract human beings, but WE—whoever we are and wherever we live, as long as we are willing to accept the responsibilities of freedom.
If we are to have economic freedom, the free market must operate within a framework of just laws. Thus, government has the function of prohibiting violence, force, theft, and fraud. Laws should be administered which protect private property and require individuals to live up to their freely made agreements.
“Under such an administration,” wrote Bastiat, “everyone would understand that he possessed all the privileges as well as all the responsibilities of his existence. No one would have any argument with government, provided that his person was respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor were protected against all unjust attack.”
Free, private enterprise is the only way we can freely use our creative energies for, not only our own good, but the remainder of society. We (free individuals)—not economic legislation from Congress—are the basis for America’s strength and stability. This general prosperity can develop when there is efficient, industrious production of goods and services. Such performance is generated when individuals and businesses are eager to work hard and honestly. There must be the incentive to do so.
That incentive is found in competition and the profit motive. Competition encourages us to make the best use of our faculties. The just reward of profit goes to industries, businesses, employers, and employees as we freely combine our energies, creativity, and labor. Profits are made without having coerced the consumer. They are made because enough of us freely decided to purchase a particular good or pay for a particular service—not because the federal government “stimulated” the economy or tried to “protect” some industries from so-called “unfair competition.”
Freedom Is Threatened
Working upon the moral grounds of competition, individual freedom, and profits, free enterprise has brought past prosperity to the United States. Our progress can be traced back to a respect for the worth and dignity of the individual. Economic freedom, however, is under attack.
Invariably, we find ourselves and the preservation of freedom again facing the issue of government intervention and plunder. Politicians and others simply will not allow our economic activities to be free and voluntary. They would deny us the right to go about our daily lives in a free market atmosphere—making an honest living for ourselves and our families. Realizing that there are some not-so-productive elements of society (individuals, businesses or whoever) who are willing to participate in plunder, politicians proceed to abuse government power and authority.
“Man,” Bastiat said, “can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property. But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder. Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain—and since labor is pain in itself—it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly.”
Indeed it does, and through taxation, government regulations, spending power, grants, and the like, we still see plunder at work. Although America still experiences many of the blessings of free enterprise, we are being subjected to greater doses of destructive plunder.
As legislators and other groups continue to call upon the federal government to create more programs and to pass more “laws,” we need to hear forcefully and clearly from more individuals like Bastiat: “It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.”
That is the one basic fact free people must understand and explain to others—other people who daily work for more government controls, laws, aid, intervention, and so on.
How Government Grows
Existing government bureaucracies plod forward—regulating our lives, taxing our hard-earned incomes, and infringing upon persona] freedom. Those who will never give up calling for more and more government will speak in honorable, compassionate terms. Their objectives will supposedly be achieved in a “free, responsive, caring, responsible, democratic” manner. They are against “oppression, discrimination, and prejudice.” They uphold the “rights and needs” of the “poor,” the elderly, the “disadvantaged,” the handicapped, the “needy,” and so on. “Social consciousness” and “the public interest” weigh heavily upon their minds.
To each problem they believe exists in every area of the United States, their automatic question is: “How can the federal government solve it?”
Daily, we hear Senators and Congressmen soberly, eagerly, and forcefully asking: “How can the federal government solve this problem?”
Their concern appears honorable enough, but beneath it lies distrust. They distrust the individual. They distrust freedom. They have faith only in their own good intentions and the power of government. Other individuals, so they vainly think, are not capable of managing their own lives. Voluntary charity will not work. Individuals, they claim, either cannot or will not freely help others who are truly in need of aid. Along with this distrust for the average citizen in Salt Lake City, Peoria, Dayton, and Muskogee, there is a hint of self-righteousness. Frederic Bastiat describes it aptly:
“The organizers maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their titles to this superiority.
“They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are fully justified in demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural superiority.”
This presumed superiority Bastiat was talking about over a century ago is seen today by the confidence in which elected government officials promote their legislation for social and economic planning. Similar programs have failed throughout history, and the same manipulation fails in socialized nations today. Ignoring past and present, spokesmen for more government power somehow feel their own efforts at organizing society will be much superior.
Organize, regulate, and coerce, they will—unless those who understand freedom are willing to bear the responsibilities of that freedom. First, of course, we have the primary responsibility to comprehend the basic principles of liberty, free market economics, limited government, and so on. Having that understanding of and appreciation for freedom is the critical foundation we must have before we can actively labor for a stable, free, prosperous nation.
If we have the basic grasp of freedom (always learning more and growing in the faith) we also make that faith in freedom a living reality in our daily lives—not drifting away to join the large numbers of those who unknowingly become a part of the “More, More, More Government” crowd.
Our labor for liberty remains the same. We must make our lives, our attitudes, and our actions consistent with “what we preach.” Those who would destroy true freedom and justice—as well- intentioned as they may be in their beliefs—will never stop promoting more government spending, power, and authority. While they undermine freedom, we should be as tireless in our own efforts—efforts to preserve the freedom they are attempting to take from us, efforts to restore the freedom we have already lost, and efforts to expand the blessings of freedom.
It’s your freedom. What about it?