Erosion of individual liberty

Politicians and government appointed officials everywhere are, to a greater or lesser extent, gradually transferring control over people’s lives to themselves. They want all of the power to rule all of the people. Institutions, such as democracy, the law, money and education, intended to protect and enhance liberty, are being perverted into instruments that reduce it and turn people into the slaves of others.

Generally, freedoms are lost gradually. The eminent economist, Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, warned of the potential consequences of the steady erosion of individual liberty. He recognised that, if deliberately or as a result of ignorance or error, the institutions upon which liberty depends are eroded, a totalitarian regime, arbitrary preferences and the use of force would predominate.

He wrote “(I)f capitalism means here a competitive system based on free disposal over private property, it is far more important to realise that only within this system is democracy possible. When it becomes dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself.”

“Democracy”, derived from the Greek demos (people) and Kratos (power), together demokratia (rule of the people), was intended to place decisions about laws in the hands of the people. Unfortunately, in our modern world, ‘democracy’ does not perform its intended function. Today, a country in which citizens have the right to vote every five years or so, but have no direct participation or influence on policy in between, is considered to be a democracy. Such a system makes it difficult for the people to correct any deficiencies there may be in the mechanisms, such as constitutions and the courts, that are intended to protect them from the machinations of politicians intent on increasing their power and incomes at the people’s expense. Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, in which citizens have such rights as referendums to change the decisions of elected politicians at any time, comes closest to the original conception of a democracy.

Politicians, to stay in power, exploit the myth that they have the ability to provide the people with benefits at no cost. They take money in taxes from one section of the population, and, after taking a generous slice of it for themselves, buy the votes of the other sectors of the population by distributing to them welfare payments and “free” services. The votes they buy with taxpayers’ money, gives them access to the processes that allow them to transfer power from the people to the government.

A society does not, without effort, gain or retain “personal rights and social and political liberty”. US President Andrew Jackson said in his farewell address to the American people in 1837, "But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behoves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government”.

Law should be an evolutionary process, slowly evolving to accommodate new discoveries and methods of organising human activities. While the law might change, the fundamental principles on which it is based should remain constant. Protection of people and their property, especially against the actions of arbitrary government, are pre-requisites for the maintenance of free societies. Parliaments that neither ensure that the statutes they churn out conform to the rule of law and the fundamental principles of good law, nor constantly review and revise existing statutes against the same measures, burden their citizens with bureaucracy and injustice, and deprive them of liberty.

If voluntary exchanges between individuals are to occur on a basis other than primitive barter, sound money is essential as a medium of exchange. The printing of fiat currency (paper money that is not convertible into a commodity such as gold) is the reason for the decline in the purchasing power of all currencies and this increasingly worth-less paper is the primary cause of the world’s current economic woes.

This situation has come about because governments have made the issuing of money a government monopoly, ostensibly to protect the people from potential fraud on the part of private issuers of currency. The result has been similar to what a farmer could expect if he hired a wolf to look after his sheep. Every currency, without fail, has been debased, some more than others. The difference between Zimbabwe’s currency debasement and that of other countries has merely been a matter of degree. Hayek’s solution to the problem of fiat money was that money should be denationalised.

Government control of education persists worldwide. Young people are subjected to coercive, centralised control of the learning process. Despite the dismal failure everywhere of government-provided and controlled schooling, better systems are kept from evolving because citizens do not or cannot bring about change. Until the children are set free, there will be no truly free society.

Government provision of money and education are socialistic arrangements and both have had seriously negative consequences. Apart from their enormous cost and detrimental effects, they represent substantial erosions of people’s property rights and freedoms. I again quote Friedrich Hayek, “the most advanced socialists openly admit that the attainment of their ends is not possible without a thorough curtailment of individual liberty.” Preservation of the institutions of a free society is an onerous task that requires “eternal vigilance” on the part of dedicated citizens who value liberty as an end in itself.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 29 March 2011

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