Is Liberty Possible?

I must begin at the beginning, with my definition of liberty:

A state of liberty exists where people cohabit an extensive geographic area in peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. The condition of peace requires mechanisms for thwarting fraud, coercion, and aggression inside the group, and from without. The condition of willing coexistence requires a combination of mutual restraint and mutual forbearance, that is, a general willingness to accept certain of others’ foibles and, in return, to honor certain constraints on one’s own behavior — even beyond fraud, coercion, and aggression.

Inherent in that definition, and essential to its fulfillment, are four things:

  • the general observance of evolved and evolving social norms and, accordingly, their enforcement through social censure
  • an accountable, minimal state, dedicated to the protection of its citizens and the enforcement of those social norms — and only those norms — that rise to the level of statutory law (e.g., acts that are generally recognized as fraudulent, coercive, and aggressive)
  • voice, the opportunity for dissent from social norms and laws (though not the right to have one’s dissent honored)
  • exit, the right to leave without penalty.

That we do not have liberty in the United States should be evident in the number of statutes and regulations that a far-from-minimal state imposes on us. With a few exceptions — most notably and laudably in the area of civil rights for blacks — liberty has been in retreat since the onset of the Progressive Era in the early 1890s. For, contrary to Fourth of July oratory, America has descended into statism. And, pace the The Star Spangled Banner, America is the land of the regulator and the home of the regulated.

Those of us lucky enough to have experienced life in small cities, towns, and villages in the 1940s know that something like liberty is possible. Ironically, and tragically, the small-town ethos that undergirds liberty has been the object of pseudo-intellectual scorn since the days of Main Street and Babbit.

Apropos the small-town ethos, I once said:

Think of life in a small town where “eveyone knows everyone else’s business.” The sense of being “watched” actually tends to foster liberty, in that it discourages crime. As a result, one’s life and property generally are safer in small towns than in large cities. By the same token, the sense of being “watched” can seem oppressive; one feels less free to do things that might draw social opprobrium, even if those things do no more than offend others’ sensibilities.

Why should everyone in a small town have to put up with small-town mores for the sake of a safer, saner life, you may ask? Well, if you don’t like small-town mores, fine, pack up and go to the big city, but don’t forget to take your handgun (if you’re allowed to have one in the big city), and keep your life and homeowner’s insurance paid up. (Alternatively, you can stay in the small town and try, through example and persuasion, to change its mores so that there is greater tolerance of social diversity.)

It seems to me that America began to lose its way as urban political machines came to dominate national politics in the early 1900s. It is true that populism, from which arose Progressivism, had its roots in small-town and rural America. But Progressivism and its later incarnations (“liberalism” a.k.a. “progressivism”) have hijacked the anti-elite rhetoric of populism in the service of a different kind of elitism: the “technocratic” regulation of personal and business conduct by puritanical, falsely omniscient bureaucrats.

Even in the unlikely event of a string of electoral victories by a Republican Party restored to its small-government roots, it seems unlikely that America can “go home” again. Urbanization — which leads citizens (wrongly) to believe that government must regulate our daily lives — is irreversible, barring an environmental or industrial catastrophe that throws us back onto the land.

Then there is the deep inculcation of statist habits of thought by schools, universities, the media, and various organizations with “progressive” agendas (e.g., teachers’ unions, labor unions, and issue-oriented organizations like AARP). As a result, a truly minimal state is beyond the imagination of most Americans.

Finally, there is the law itself, through which the “progressive” agenda has infiltrated almost every kind of decision made by Americans in their personal and business lives, from cradle to grave and from planting crops to disposing of waste. An electoral and intellectual revolution would have to be accompanied by a legal one, but the wheels of the law grind slowly and often in perverse ways.

Is liberty possible? Liberty, as I define it, seems impossible. All we can hope and fight for are second- or third-best outcomes. I would settle for an America like that of the 1940s and 1950s, with an overlay of equal treatment under the law (but not in private matters) for all citizens — even the putative white-male majority.