All Commentary
Thursday, January 27, 2011

Whose Freedom?

Today’s document is an old advertisement for subscriptions to FEE’s magazine, The Freeman. The Freeman has been a staple in FEE’s history since the foundation took control over it in 1956, merging it with its own Ideas on Liberty. The basic selling point of this advertisement is that freedom is everyone’s business. The worker, the employer, the teacher, the housewife, everyone! And, of course, The Freeman is a magazine dedicated to the cause of freedom (and still is to this day!).

While it is an advertisement for the magazine, it does contain an important message, one that many “believers” in freedom often miss, which causes them to advocate, what the ad calls, the Trojan horse of interventionism and socialism within our walls.  As the ad says, “Diverse ‘isms’ that attempt to replace individual thinking and initiative can not grow or survive where love of freedom inhabits the heart of man.” In other words, knowing what freedom means or understanding what Leonard Read called the freedom philosophy is important for everyone in order to achieve and maintain a free society. Just to hammer it home, as former FEE economist F. A. “Baldy” Harper said, “The Man who knows what freedom means will find a way to be free.”  But saying you support freedom and wanting to be free are not enough. Liberty requires understanding as well.

While few would deny freedom is important to them, many will still willing throw chains on others. In a recent blog post economist Bryan Caplan brilliantly illustrates this. Looking at the ethics of strangers, on both the left and right, we can see the desire for freedom but also the willingness to deny freedom to others. Many on the left, despite their calls for wealth redistribution, will often take great offense to homeless people’s demands for their money. But they have no qualms with the State taking by force from others to help the poor. That’s hardly consistent.

Similarly, some on the right argue for closed boarders to protect American workers. A closer look, however, reveals this is not in line with freedom at all. As Caplan puts it, “People in the Third World are strangers, but we still have a moral obligation to leave them in peace.  Instead, we pass draconian laws forbidding these strangers to work for other complete strangers.  And for what?  To fulfill our fantastical obligation to maintain the wages of fellow citizens we don’t trust enough to give our kids a ride.”

Wanting to be free is one thing; it is a desire seen through most, if not all, of human history. But knowing why freedom is crucial for a prosperous and peaceful society is the only way to really achieve it. We need to know why property and the freedom to use it creates the markets that foster growth, and how interventions, such as wealth redistribution, distort and destroy wealth. We need to know that freedom of association for all is something that is part and parcel of the very same property rights. Freedom is not just for you. It is for everyone. Until we believe and understand this, the benefits of a truly free society will be out of reach.

This advertisement may be old but it should still sell because the world would be better off if more people read The Freeman.

Download The Freeman advertisement here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.