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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: The Political Sale of Liberty

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Political Sale of Liberty

Libertarians, originally known as liberals, value liberty or freedom above other political objectives and more than other political groups.  In "The Road to Serfdom", F.A. Hayek defined liberty as
...freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. 
Milton Friedman made the same point and tied individual liberty with competitive capitalism (Milton Friedman, "Capitalism and Freedom").
As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in society...The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables one to offset the other.
The title of liberal had value and was wrested from the original philosophers who supported freedom and liberty by a political philosophy that valued state intervention to achieve desired outcomes. Milton Friedman observes in "Capitalism and Freedom"
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and especially after 1930 in the United States, the term liberalism came to be associated with a very different emphasis, particularly in economic policy.  It came to be associated with a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements to achieve objectives regarded as desirable.  The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom.  The nineteenth century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom.  In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which classical liberalism fought. 
In today's lexicon, yesterday's liberals are libertarians.  The first economists, with the exception of Marxists, were libertarians and used their influence to replace mercantilist paternalism, including slavery, with freedom.  Historian Thomas Carlyle dubbed economics as the dismal science for their opposition to slavery and argued that slavery was a superior form of economic organization because replacing slavery with labor markets caused a decline in the moral and economic lives of former slaves. 

Economic research begun by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in "Time on the Cross" does support the claim that slave agriculture was economically viable and that the material conditions (food, housing, hours worked) of slaves compared favorably with industrial workers in the decades preceding the Civil War.  The authors did not support slavery but believed that the intervention of one government against another was necessary to end slavery and establish freedom for slaves.  There work is widely accepted as fundamentally correct (Whaples, Robert, "Where Is There Consensus among American Economic Historians? The Results of a Survey on Forty Propositions" Journal of Economic History 55 (1): 139–154, 1995).   

Many Americans seem willing to trade their freedom for economic comforts and simultaneously bind their neighbors who would maintain their freedoms and yet evidence of that enslavement is abundant.  We have given the federal government power to dictate to us the type of health insurance we buy, the fuel efficiency of cars we drive, the water flow of toilettes we flush, the light bulbs we switch on and the salt we eat.  What freedoms will we lose in the coming year in the name of collective progress?

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