Friday, September 08, 2017

The Meaning of Free Society

A free society is a political association of individuals in which each possesses the identical protection to act without being coerced—by anyone, but especially the government—to work cooperatively via the division of labor to produce prosperity and peace.

Association is entirely voluntary between self-interested consenting adults who exercise their capacity to reason to produce values that are traded with each other to acquire spiritual and material benefits. The result is enhancement of each other’s lives. Spiritual benefits include friendship, love, and other non-material values that are not exchanged on the market for money. Material benefits, however, most often are so exchanged; they include the production of wealth through the creation of capital goods, which in turn create consumer goods. A rapidly rising psychological and physical well-being is consequence of this voluntary and self-interested consent.

The free society is a liberal society. The term used here refers to the institution of classical liberalism, the product of Enlightenment values and benefactor of human life over the past two hundred years that has brought humankind out of abject poverty to a life of luxury unimaginable in earlier years.

The free society is a social system called laissez-faire capitalism. It is based on individual rights, those freedoms to take action that are requirements for survival and comfort. Rights derive from and are inherent in the nature of humans as rational beings. Freedom to take action means, in Ayn Rand’s clarifying formulation, no one may initiate physical force against anyone else; everyone receives identical protection from such initiated coercion and is therefore equal before the law. Freedom to take action, finally, means the right, through trade, to acquire, use, and dispose of property as one sees fit. Property rights are the implementation of the rights to life and liberty and constitute the foundation without which a free society cannot flourish.

Rights, freedom, equality, and property—these are the essential concepts.

The free society more specifically rests on a theory of human nature that acknowledges the supremacy of reason to know reality and to guide our actions. It assumes that as beings who possess the capacity to reason, we must each independently exercise that capacity to produce and acquire values for our own self-interested gain. All physically healthy adults who possess normal brains are capable of making this choice and are therefore capable of supporting themselves. Those who do not make the choice are consenting to become dependent on others to provide for them.

Errors made during the Enlightenment failed to give reason, egoism, and individualism their full due, thus allowing ancient hostilities to self-responsibility to emerge and intensify under the new banner of statism, by shifting obedience to authority from a god or gods to a collective or the state. The theory of human nature that reason is limited and incapable of perceiving reality correctly, or directly, and therefore cannot guide actions in a reliable way, meant that humans cannot be independent or self-responsible. They must be provided for, led, and coerced by an elite who knows what is best.


The Hobbesian leviathan states, or rather, omnipotent governments (1, 2), of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries were the result.* Enlightenment errors allowed religious virtue to become secularized as political and psychological dependence. Statism became the social system of choice to modernize, and rationalize, self-sacrifice and coercion as a way of life. Government became our god and we must now bow down to it as our master and friend.**

Historically, freedom meant, and today still means, capable of acting without being controlled by others, especially church, king, or state. In history, one of the ironically sad problems classical liberals faced when arguing for a free society was that many serfs and slaves resisted being freed. They feared how they would take care of themselves and many apologists for the authoritarian state, because of their theory of human nature, agreed that serfs and slaves were incapable of independence. (See Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism, chap. 1.) 


In the era of the Soviet Union, there were stories of Russian citizens who were allowed to leave for a visit to the West but chose to return, because the totalitarian paradise of communism felt safer than freedom. The same can be said about many victims of controlling and abusive personal relationships; aside from fear of reprisal for walking away, many of these victims simply do not have the strength to leave.

The strength I am talking about is psychological. The essential mental requirement for a free society is a strong personal identity manifested as a high level of self-esteem. The free society cannot survive or grow without a sufficient number of citizens who possess the psychology of independence and moral virtue of independent judgment.

Free citizens—who intend to keep a free society—must be the boy in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.


* Statism is the broader concept that subsumes communism and socialism, on the one hand (left?), and fascism, on the other (right?), as well as monarchies and other authoritarian states. Statism is the exact opposite of free society, or capitalism. In today’s context, I suggest that the term be brought back and made prominent in political and philosophical discussions. It may help ease the confusion over “left” versus “right.”

** And the “obligation of the nobility,” or noblesse oblige, became transferred from the titled aristocracy to a titled bureaucracy.


1 comment :

Capitalism vs. Statism said...

Dear Mr. Kirkpatrick,

A great article. It is wonderful to see a post that addresses both what is necessary for a free society and what leads to statism, especially in a psychological context.

I would like to invite you my own blog "Capitalism vs. Statism" which I created back in 2008, if you have some time. This the link:
https://capitalismvsstatism.wordpress.com/

I just posted an article there titled "Atlas Shrugged, Psychology, and 60 Years" at:
https://capitalismvsstatism.wordpress.com/

I have followed your blog for years and have enjoyed reading many of your postings and insights, and have a link to your blog from my blog. All the best.