Is Freedom a Radical Idea?

Sheldon Richman
Campaign For Liberty

The answer to the question “Is freedom a radical idea” is: no and yes. Let me explain.

Starting with the “no”: Most children grow up learning the libertarian, or nonaggression, ethic. Parents say: “Don’t hit, don’t take other kids’ stuff without asking, and don’t break your promises.” Nothing radical — in the sense of out of the mainstream — there. It neatly translates into: Respect life, liberty, and property, and honor your contracts.

Most people carry these principles with them into adulthood. They avoid common-law crimes against persons and property, not because they are afraid of the cops but because criminal behavior conflicts with living the life they want to live.

Libertarianism can be seen therefore as merely a plea for the consistent application of these rules to and for everyone. It’s Spencer’s Law of Equal Liberty.

Now let’s move on to the “yes.” In the political realm, freedom has been a radical idea indeed, the exception. There the rules are different. The State — that is, certain special individuals — may “legitimately” do what you and I can’t do. If you or I kill when our lives are not in mortal danger, it is called murder. When the State does it, it is called war, or counterinsurgency, or capital punishment. If you or I, threatening force, demand money from our neighbors for their protection or to do good works, it is called robbery. When the State does it, it’s called taxation. If you or I impress someone into service against his or her will, it’s called slavery. If the State does it, it’s called conscription or national service. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Why these differences? Many reasons have been offered throughout the millennia. The State was said to be the deity’s agent on earth. It was said to embody the general will. And it was said to operate by the consent of the governed.

Regardless of the rationalization, the State, by a process of moral alchemy, or moral laundering, claims to turn bad things into good. By this ideology, rulers have kept the idea of freedom tightly contained, when it is in effect at all.

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