The Free Society and Its Enemies
JANUARY 01, 1969 by TIBOR R. MACHAN
Mr. Machan, candidate for the Ph. D. degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also teaches part-time and does free-lance writing.
The education of citizens in the philosophy of freedom must be the concern of all those who consider the free society the proper kind of social system under which man can live with his fellow men. Unfortunately, it is in this task that those who propose a free society find themselves least qualified. The reason is simple: how the problems of individuals, how their wants will best be handled is not something that we can forecast with certainty.
This basic uncertainty about the ways in which free men would deal with their lives—how they would manage to travel roads built by private concerns, to mention just one issue which is raised frequently—should not, however, prevent one from thinking about the issue once in a while. It is true that if a free society is based on the moral point of view that each man has the moral right to the use and disposal of his property—including himself and his work—then it is of secondary concern how men will come to produce those things which we now seem to value very highly. Surely, if it is morally right to have private ownership of land, how that principle will effect the satisfaction of the now expressed desire for roads, parks, beaches, and the like is of secondary concern.
But it is also true that unless we can successfully demonstrate that a free society is good for people, that it is of benefit to man—that the moral principles serve his best interest—we cannot very well advocate its adoption. Yet we know that not everyone with whom we talk about freedom is thoroughly versed in the intricacies of philosophical reasoning. A recent discussion I had with a gentle lady of advanced years showed me that it is very difficult to resolve basic problems of epistemology with someone who, though basically intelligent, just has not the time or the energy to absorb what is needed to consider such issues.
As a result, I considered demonstrating to some of my intellectual adversaries that some of the things we value today—roads, parks, forests, beaches, schools, and so on—not only would be available to people who wish to obtain them but would be obtainable in much better conditions and circumstances than now prevail. In attempting this, I found that one cannot limit himself to one alternative. Certainly, it is quite possible that city roads—as they are now known—would be maintained and owned by the local business concerns (groceries, gas stations, motels, banks, nightclubs, and the like). But it is also conceivable that roads might be defunct at the time when a free society will be established, and the problem would not even arise. The notion that we would travel in helicopters may now seem outrageous; but with free men, one can never tell what is going to catch on next.
An important feature of this type of presentation of the possibilities of and within a free society is that at certain stages it reveals a great deal about the person with whom one is talking. For instance, the lady with whom I was discussing the matter objected to my suggestion that businesses might own the city roads on the grounds that "they might not let me walk on them unless I do it for the sole purpose of trading with them." This revealed something very interesting to me about this lady. It strongly hinted that hers was a negative view of human nature. Clearly, it would be absurd and even self-defeating for anyone to make that kind of a limitation on property which is widely used and which works, in the end, to further his benefit. A business does not benefit solely through direct trade; good will, patience, and kindness to customers furthers one’s business operations in any market where buyers are free to choose where they will shop. We all find it disturbing when we are being pushed too hard by salesmen who cannot wait for us to make a decision. But the suggestion that honest business practices, competence, consideration for one’s fellow men, and respect of others’ rights, would foster ill will seems to stem not so much from a concern over the availability of generally recognized values and goods but from a basic distrust of the capacity of man for goodness.
Many people believe, consciously or subconsciously, that man by his very nature is either stupid or evil. They do not act on this in their personal lives—not always, that is—but they tend to think it when the promise of human freedom is suggested to them. They look at history and believe that the evils result, not from bad ideas, distorted views, faulty reasoning, or the absence of reasoning by many powerful people, but from the basic, necessary deficiencies of human nature. And when this becomes evident, we who believe otherwise can go to work on a reconsideration of the philosophy of man and society.
Religion and philosophy have had great influence in bringing about the kind of society we have. It is only through reconsideration of the problems in those very abstract fields of study that we may be able to recast man’s image. But our rethinking of those issues also may help us appreciate the confusion that persists in many minds about alternative systems of government and society. For clearly, if man is necessarily evil or deficient in important aspects of his character, no social system is going to bring about the goods which so many of our adversaries believe a free society cannot produce. As to the lady’s objection, for instance, surely she must realize that if people would privately place stupid prohibitions on the use of the property which they open for trading purposes, they will vote just as stupidly when the use of city streets is considered in the "democratic process." There is, after all, no guarantee that City Planning Commissions are composed of infallible and good people; and if they are all deficient by nature, the harmful judgments they make will affect all of us. An elite and a dictator are equally subject to the laws of human nature. So, it is a mistake to think that pure democracy or representative democracy—or any other system of government in which human beings administer the decisions would protect us against the failings of naturally deficient or evil men. At least, in a free society we would be able to confine the source of evil and the responsibility for it much more efficiently; while, as it stands now, we all suffer at the hands of the majority and its representatives.
Discussing the values of a free society is an exasperating job. But it is immensely revealing; it tells one a great deal about why we are where we are and why we are not moving toward a better alternative more rapidly. By paying heed to some of the things that concern our adversaries, we can learn a great deal about them and about the problems we must overcome in order to progress toward the building of a truly free society. I am by no means pessimistic. But I would warn against believing that the task is a simple one.