At the Independent Institute, we believe that individual liberty—in the context of constitutionally limited government and free markets—produces great results. Our defense of individual liberty does not arise out of a philosophy that says to the world, “Leave me alone.” Rather, we defend liberty from a philosophy that says specifically to the government, “Leave us alone so we can be together.”
Where individuals are free and government is limited, people have the incentive to engage in commercial transactions for mutual benefit. They also have the leeway to establish educational, artistic, familial, and religious relationships that are not transactional—relationships that often involve self-sacrifice for others, especially children. All of this arises without being dictated by bureaucrats. A free society is like choosing your own schoolyard friends rather than having the teacher assign them to you.
Historically, this reflects a “classical liberal” outlook. Part of the genius of this outlook is to distinguish society from the state: It is not the role of the state (i.e., government power) to control society or to determine its features. The state can stifle society but it cannot create it, because society is the flowering of human freedom.
It would be a mistake to try, somehow in the name of freedom, to liberate individuals from the influence of society—family, community, faith, art, etc. That would scarcely be human! Human dignity shows itself best when we bind ourselves freely to one another in affection or at least respect and mutual tolerance. In this way we fulfill the ethical framework of natural law, and we forge natural, living links to those who went before us and to generations yet to come.
So the point of liberty is not to protect the individual against the influence of society but rather against the coercion of the state. The stronger civil society is, the less need there is for coercive state power. Conversely, when the voluntary bonds of mutual association weaken, and individuals are “on their own,” then the situation is ripe for the abusive extension of state power. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Totalitarianism exploits such vacuums. The cardinal sin of totalitarianism is to insist that society conform to the state and to require that culture—indeed, human nature itself—reflect government policy. But human nature is not a creation of the state, and should not be under the thumb of the state or public policy.
Therefore lovers of liberty want more than just limits on government power; we also want to foster a society with a humane culture. We celebrate the many ways that people provide for the common good without resorting to government—successful profit-making businesses, of course, and also a multitude of other ventures like cooperatives, philanthropies, private medical insurance pools, and NGOs of all kind. Our now-classic book, The Voluntary City (published in 2002) set forth nongovernmental cooperative solutions even in areas where most people think only of government—such as in urban planning, courts, and education.
In a healthy society, most of the activities of human life have nothing to do with partisanship or ideology. By contrast, in a socialist system where government lays claim to the means of production, and where everything is potentially subject to state control, everything operates in the shadow of politics; the government is always trying to mobilize society toward the achievement of some urgent, collective goal. As Oscar Wilde once remarked, “The trouble with socialism is that it leaves you with no free evenings.” By contrast, a free society flourishes when people get together on their own terms, whether to build gun ranges or organic gardens or mutual aid societies.
“Thank you, teacher, but I’ll choose my own friends—lots of them!”
Published in Independent: Newsletter of the Independent Institute, vol. 29, no. 3, Fall 2019. Copyright © 2019 by the Independent Institute.