Friday, August 1, 2008

Thoughts on Cato University Lecture II: "The March of Freedom, 2500 B.C.- 1775 A.D." by Tom Palmer

“From now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless…… this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal…… this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment, this was the time when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals.” -Barack Obama, Minneapolis, June 3, 2008.

One thing that often irritates me about progressives is their vision of some perfected future, crafted in their latest folk hero’s image. A desire to improve people’s material condition is admirable. However, there often seems to be a Messianic tinge to the movement, that strikes me of naiveté, and worse, apocalyptic ambition. Such idealism scares the hell out of me, because I know that to carry out a plan to eliminate all war, strife, pollution, unemployment, or other ills, there would have to be some pretty colossal interventions. I guarantee that I much prefer the world I live in now to the one they’ll have “perfected” for me.

However, after listening to Tom Palmer’s excellent speech, “The March of Freedom, 2500 B.C.-1775 A.D.,” he convinced me that libertarians often make a similar mistake. Now, it is true that, over the past few hundred years, technological advances, industrialization, and liberalization have led to significantly improved living conditions around the world. However, too often, people tend to view history as a trajectory, in which we started out as dim-witted barbarians, endured various stages of despotism, all until the clever Europeans instituted constitutional rights with the Magna Carta. In this model, the dominant intellectual discourse continues to progress until now we are America and so can you. This libertarian-scented progressiveness has a few problems, which Palmer implied in his lecture, in which he provided a comprehensive historical account of the campaign for liberty:

1) Liberty, small-government, and personal autonomy are not new concepts, nor are they found exclusively within the Western tradition. Palmer mentioned a quote (I cannot find the source) of a University of London professor who says “Freedom is uniquely Anglo-Saxon. Other languages do not have a word for the concept.” This European exceptionalism is dead-wrong, according to Palmer. For example, in 2300 BC, Urukagina of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) enacted a judicial code that allowed for private property rights, limited taxes, and a restriction on state monopolies.
The semi-mythical Chinese figure, Lao Tzu, has been revered by Daoists since at least the 4th century B.C. for such teachings as:

“If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.”

2)Some of today’s most authoritarian governments are thoroughly modern. Palmer points out that Iran is not some old-fashioned theocracy rooted in classical Islam. It is actually a bizarre amalgam of European fascism, Marxist economics, and Islamic-themed romanticism.

3)Freedom is not the only cherished value. Research indicates that freedom is an important factor in average happiness and prosperity, at least in a cross-sectional studies. However, some people seem to think, that, so long as we establish private property rights, there would be no more pollution or extinction of species. I’m skeptical. I also agree with many of the behavioral economists in that freedom my allow some of us to make short term decisions that lead to life-long regret, which can actually decrease our overall well-being. Some people just can’t handle their freedom. It’s still their prerogative to ruin it.

4) Some people will always crave power; thus power must always be checked. Just because people establish a truly free society, does not mean that the society is any less (or more) fragile. Some great civilizations were conquered. Others were spared by pure luck (Palmer describes the case of Ögedei Khan, who, in 1241, was just about to expand his huge empire to Austria, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain, when he got poisoned and died). And it’s not only central power that poses a threat. If some monster decides to unleash a pandemic, or build an increasingly-easier-to-develop nuclear weapon, G-d help us, because freedom will not (and this notion of an individual's power to initiate harm presents an enormous conundrum to libertarians, as we oppose individualss losing their privacy or agency). This fear means that we can never have a ribbon cutting ceremony, marking the beginning of our new earth. Vigilant oversight of power is not a battle to be won, but a continuous war of attrition. When we all die, the next generation of watchmen will simply have to take over. And others will have to watch the watchmen.

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