Freedom Begins Within

In a recent essay “The Hope of Freedom in the American Character” Wendy McElroy writes:

There is no need to live in darkness. Freedom is not an external flame or circumstance that is beyond individual control; it is internal and the natural state of man.

Many people realize that government does not create wealth but they still believe it creates freedom. And, so, when freedom becomes scarce, people look almost automatically to government to restore or create it. They agitate for a law, they vote for their candidate, they sign a petition. As with wealth, however, the government can only confiscate freedom, not grant it. Ultimately, all appeals to authority amount to pleading for less to be taken…or for the return of a portion of what was stolen before.

Wendy’s essay is both hopeful and sobering. If freedom is fading in America, it is because we collectively are turning away from freedom. Politicians are not taking away our freedom, we are taking it away from ourselves. But why would we?

Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in her riveting book The Discovery of Freedom:

For six thousand years at least, a majority has generally believed in pagan gods. A pagan god, whatever it is called, is an Authority which (men believe) controls the energy, the acts and therefore the fate of all individuals.

The pagan view of the universe is that it is static, motionless, limited and controlled by an Authority. The pagan view of man is that individuals are, and by their nature should and must be, controlled by some Authority outside themselves.

Of course, as Lane demonstrates, this view that others can and should control your energy is false. It results in poverty and misery. Nobody can save us from our own false beliefs. Wilder explains why we would choose such a false belief. When something goes wrong and the Authority fails us, we have someone to blame.

Wilder wrote her book in 1943; she was contrasting the views of the Old World (Europe) against the more progressive views of Americans. I doubt Lane could have imagined that, just decades later, Americans would be reverting to the view that our energy should be controlled by others.

Of course we might argue that Lane’s view of the world is too simple. Yes, the desire to blame others is a universal syndrome shared by all egos. But perhaps there’s another related belief to be uncovered. Perhaps Americans no longer believe that, if left uncontrolled, their energy is benign. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, they believe their energy is benign but the energy of others is not. Thus, they believe that they need government to control outcomes so that good things will happen.

This viewpoint is of course easily refuted. The 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat asked: “Since the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to allow them liberty, how comes it to pass that the tendencies of organizers are always good?”

Ludwig von Mises pointed out it impossible to receive “benefits” of more government without forfeiting your freedom:

It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.

Famed philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book On Revolution observed that the fundamental political dichotomy is tyranny vs. freedom: “No cause is left but the most ancient of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics, the cause of freedom versus tyranny.”

So where does that leave us? The beginning of the way back toward reclaiming our freedom is to understand that we have chosen to forfeit our freedom. Loss of our freedom has not been done to us—it is the consequence of what we believe. And, if we are the cause, then we can change the effects by changing our minds.

3 Responses to Freedom Begins Within

  1. Lyn says:

    Bastiat’s brilliance is boundless; thanks for that quote, Barry. Holding this understanding consistently across one’s thoughts and actions is an extraordinary challenge. Thank you for this piece.

  2. Steve P says:

    That was a masterful weaving of wisdom from a select group that sadly remains unknown to the vast majority in this country. It was a pure shot of inspiration to me. Thank you for also including words from Hannah Arendt. Though she consideredd herself a political theorist you are justified in refering to her as a famed philosopher. She may have been popular with the political left, but in reading her it is impossible not to see a similarity in ideas with many libertarian/classical liberal thinkers.

  3. Barry Brownstein says:

    Thanks, Lyn and Steve. There is so much wisdom that we are ignoring at our own peril.

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