The case for freedom is grounded in the nature of man, not in “self-evident truths” or “God-given rights”. This is the argument Richard Ebeling makes in his essay, ‘Restoring the Foundations of Liberty’. The respective foundations of self-evident truth and God-given rights birthed the tradition of individual liberty, but using those arguments is no longer effective. Ebeling writes that an effective, proper defence of individual liberty “must have its basis in reason, logic and objective reality”. The last mentioned is perhaps the most important because many arguments, nowadays, are based on emotion rather than reality.
What exactly is classical liberalism, as opposed to collectivist philosophies such as socialism and fascism? Classical liberalism advocates for individual rights protected by the rule of law. Classical liberalism emphasises economic liberties such that people are able to trade with whomever they desire, on the terms they believe best. The guiding principle of interaction under this paradigm is voluntarism – there is no prejudice amongst people save against those who use force or fraud in their dealings with others. Classical liberalism places the individual at the center; other philosophies place greatest importance on the group.
The great temptation is to focus on that which ‘works’ and to compromise the principle of liberty if it is for short-term gain; as Ebeling explains, “freedom is a tightly woven tapestry of principles that when compromised ‘at the margin’ between individual liberty and political paternalism has the risk of incremental losses of freedom”.
Ceding the argument to some levels of wealth redistribution, or land seizure, or increased taxation on certain goods for ‘public health’ will all eventually add up to the loss of individual freedom, regardless of the intended consequences in the moment. Ebeling phrases the argument against pragmatism as “principle versus expediency”, which means that we must clearly establish the principles of freedom and then defend these despite the momentary hollow-victories we may gain if we focus on ‘compromise’ and ‘what works’.
When our principles are not clear and established, it is easier to acquiesce to arguments that portend to target obvious bad government plans, but which chip away at the liberty we currently have. Instead of compromising our principles because we want to ‘work with’ people who, fundamentally, may be opposed to us, Ebeling, using work from Friedrich Hayek, quotes that we must “not be afraid of being radical in [our] case for classical liberalism”. Classical liberalism stands directly opposed to the collectivist ideas that have inflicted massive tragedies on humanity, from Nazism to communism. The notion that to restrict government power over the life of the individual is a moral imperative for ensuring individual happiness flies directly in the face of every attempt to centralise and grow the reach of the government. When we advocate for limited government, the impression is that we are uncaring and greedy. Accusations that distract attention from the fundamental philosophical argument. Appealing to the emotional ‘worth’ of one’s perspective does not mean that one’s argument is moral. Advocating in favour of classical liberalism and all that is entailed within it has a deeply radical argument at its core, and one should expect people to be resistant at every turn.
Making the case for classical liberalism is very difficult despite the weight of historical and present facts, and the moral weight we have at our disposal, because political, economic and moral arguments nowadays have become too emotional to be useful for changing people’s minds. Despite the difficulties, Ebeling argues that we must not compromise our radical ideals in favour of adding emotionality to what we are presenting – if we do so, we compromise our ideas and lose their moral weight. It will not do to appeal to an authority, or history, or to engage in shouting matches – the effectiveness of our argument is couched in how we link it to objective reality so that each person can understand the philosophy and associate it to problems within their own personal narratives. Throughout his essay, Ebeling wants us to make a consistent, logical argument without getting bogged down in petty spats and useless bromides.
Author Chris Hattingh is an intern at the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.