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Why I’m pessimistic about the future of liberty, by Matt Faherty

[This is a guest post by Matt Faherty, an undergraduate history major at the University of Chicago.]

Throughout the last two hundred years, the rights of personhood have been extended to minorities in the United States and the Western world. Racial slavery has been eradicated, voting rights have equalized, women receive full protection under the law, and marriage equality will be achieved for all life styles within the generation. Yet while more minorities have been brought into the threshold of personhood, on the whole, the rights afforded to a person have steadily eroded for more than a century. In other words, the number of those given rights have expanded, but the value of those rights are in decline. The problem is that the former trend is almost at its limit, while the latter trend still has a long way to fall.

To further understand the point, let me clarify a few things about personhood. I am referring to the idea that governments grant rights to individuals who are deemed to be rational beings. Keep in mind that I am not saying that the government should be granting rights, but that is essentially how it has always worked.

If the proper role of the state is to protect the individual rights of man, then there are essentially two political processes of expanding rights. The first is to expand the “breadth” of personhood. This means that more individuals within a given society are recognized as persons by governments. Until the 1860s, blacks were not granted the status of personhood in the United States, and were instead considered subhumans who could be owned as property. With the conclusion of the Civil War, blacks were granted some degree of personhood, which slowly became stronger over a century until the Civil Rights movement made its great stand in the 1960s. With the plethora of legislation to come out of this era, blacks essentially gained legal equality and along with it, full personhood. This is not to say that no racism exists in the American legal system, but that the racism is no longer built into its structure (though I am sure some people will disagree with me on that assessment).

The other way to increase liberty is to increase the “value” of personhood. The higher the value, the more closely the state’s conception of rights aligns with the morally objective rights of man (rights to life, liberty, property, etc.). For example, the movement from serfdom to emancipation in Europe involved a great increase in the value of the serfs’ personhood because men should have the right to form labor contracts with whomever they see fit. On the other hand, the recently revealed encroachment on personal privacy initiated by the NSA has reduced the value of personhood in America.

Both the breadth and value of personhood have upper limits. The maximum breadth of personhood is for every adult with reasoning capacity to be considered a person under the law. The maximum value of personhood is for a government to protect all of the moral requirements for living in society as outlined by Ayn Rand.

Do both categories have minimum limits? I am not sure. The minimum breadth of personhood would probably be some sort of state of chronic warfare in which every person was constantly fighting for survival. The minimum value of personhood is either slavery or death (or maybe slavery with the chronic threat of death), and is probably best represented by the current state of North Korea.

The future of liberty is grim in the West because the breadth of personhood has basically hit its maximum limit while the value of liberty continues to decline. More and more people have been granted rights, but fewer rights are being granted to each individual. In the mid nineteenth century, the idea of the government’s taxing more than half of an individual’s income would have been considered ludicrous, as would the state’s prohibiting the construction of doorways without bureaucratic inspections, preventing individuals from drinking raw milk, shutting down children’s lemonade stands, and forcing individuals to buy health care. Yet today these practices are not only in effect, but for the most part, aren’t even protested.

Man lives best when his rights are protected. Never before in history has this been more obvious. We have better philosophical, moral, economic, anthropological, and statistical arguments for this point than ever, yet the rights of personhood have arguably never been less well protected (at least since the invention of the concept of rights and their formal or informal introduction into Western governments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Blacks were enslaved in the nineteenth century because they were considered subhuman, but wealthy individuals are forced to sacrifice more than 75% of their income today in France despite being considered fully human. Homosexuality used to be illegal because the lifestyle was considered unnatural, but today individuals with fully recognized rights are forced to pay for nationalized transport, schooling, and education industries. Blacks and homosexuals now have close to full personhood status in the West, but the income tax has plenty of room to increase, and there are many more industries to nationalize.

I do not wish to denigrate the achievements of the liberty movement over the last few hundred years. We have made tremendous strides in brining freedom to millions across the globe, but in the next generation or two, I think the battlefront will move significantly. Western governments and statist intellectuals will be forced to confront more fundamental questions about the nature of man and his rights. Hopefully pro-liberty forces will eventually prevail, but I think it will be some time before the relevant conversations are pushed in that direction, and until then, my outlook on the future of liberty remains bleak.

Matt Faherty

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6 Comments

  1. With the conclusion of the Civil War, blacks were granted some degree of personhood, which slowly became stronger over a century until the Civil Rights movement made its great stand in the 1960s.

    I would have said that the overall tendency, during the century from emancipation to just before the civil rights era, was one of steady decline in blacks’ rights, in the south at least. Didn’t the Jim Crow regime become more severe over time?

  2. One reason I’m less pessimistic is that alongside the growth in government power I see the growth of resistance, and of the tools of resistance. And today that resistance is ending wars and toppling governments. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.)

  3. Badminton Wes says:

    I think there are plenty of economic arguments that do not support “Man lives best when his rights are protected”, including positive externalities. Should individuals not be forced to pay for education for a more informed and productive populace. What about “nationalized” defense (although the amount of defense is arguable)? Liberty is a word with super strong positive connotations that I personally would define a bit differently.

  4. Matt Faherty says:

    Roderick, my wording on the progression of black rights was sloppy. More accurately, black rights were volatile but overall trended upwards over the time period. The “Black Codes” made after the war created close to slavery conditions, but they were done away with in a few years due to Union intervention. Southern states were then established new oppressive governments, but many blacks moved up North and were able to gain some degree of freedom. KKK strength also varied during the era. The intensification of black oppression during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s I believe was due more to black resistance rather than the state’s conception of black rights (which was probably improving on the whole). Admittedly this topic is not my specialty.

    As for new forms of resistance to state growth, I have concerns about the ideologies behind these resistant strains. Are they any more pro-liberty than the current regimes they resist? In some cases yes, but in others no. I think we would have to look at individual cases to decide.

    Badminton, these are big issues but I will respond briefly to the specific points you raised.

    First, I do think that liberty (or the protection of man’s rights) are what is best for him. Rights are the moral requirements for man’s existence. Without his rights protected, men live in subhuman states and cannot reach their full potential. Specifically, men should live free from the harm of the initiation of coercion, rather than under its constant threat.

    Second, Individuals should not be forced to pay for education because the state should not be forcing any non-aggressor to do anything, the state has incentive problems (public-choice theory), and because the state cannot determine the proper amount of resources to allocate to education (the knowledge problem). Another way to state these points: the state should not take this action because it is immoral, the state’s agents wouldn’t perform this action well because there is no reason for it to do so, and even if the state’s agents were willing to perform the action and were especially skilled at doing so, it could not perform the action well because it is impossible to centrally plan an economy or industry.

    Third, there should be a national defense, though I don’t think it needs to be financed via coercive extortion or theft.

    Fourth, I think liberty should be considered a positive concept as well. The key is that it refers to positive actions, namely the prerogative to perform certain actions in certain contexts. All men who do not violate rights of others should have the ability to perform the actions which best enhance their lives.

  5. Badminton Wes says:

    Matt,

    I would argue morality, for the most part, lies outside of the domain of economics, and thus it cannot be used as an economic argument.

    While I would agree with you that, as constructed, the state’s agents have improperly-aligned incentives (see teacher tenure), the state could avoid this issue by subsidizing the cost of private education instead of providing a public alternative. The use of subsidies (still) allows for a market based allocation. While the state would still have to use imperfect knowledge to determine the size of subsidies, there is no total market-based alternative, I don’t think that the economic calculation / knowledge problem would apply in this situation due to the lack of alternatives (although you are probably more familiar with the literature on this than I am, so tell me if I am wrong) . The same would hold for national defense; the government is not perfect, but there is no alternative market mechanism and not providing defense seems like a poor choice.

    I’m not sure what you are referencing with coercive extortion.

    I agree with the idea that liberty is a positive concept, but would argue it has taken on a different cultural (?) meaning.

  6. I would argue morality, for the most part, lies outside of the domain of economics, and thus it cannot be used as an economic argument.

    But your question was about how people “live best.” Morality is not irrelevant to that question.

    As for economics, I’m not sure what your case is for the claims that there is “no alternative market mechanism” for either education or defense.

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