Broad based liberty can only exist in a society that has thriving institutions of liberty. These institutions comprise a sprawling multi-level network that informs and impacts every facet of life. This network includes institutions of every conceivable size.
It is not possible to design such a broad, multi-faceted network. But it is possible to develop a framework that supports such a network and encourages its survival and expansion.
The list of types of institutions of liberty is extensive. It includes businesses, libraries, youth groups, educational establishments, trade associations, municipal governments, churches, legal systems, scientific societies, media and other communication lines, travel routes, charity and service societies, free and open elections, arts, military, athletic clubs, etc.
The fact that an institution falls into one of these categories does not make it a liberal institution. (Note that the term liberal is here used to denote support of human liberty rather than to describe a specific modern political ideology.) In fact, most of the categories listed above include many illiberal institutions — organizations that run counter to human liberty.
If category isn’t enough to classify a structure, what delineates between a liberal and an illiberal institution? It would be easy to say that liberal institutions are dedicated to human liberty, while others are not. But in fact, many organizations not devoted to liberty actually function to encourage it.
For example, the argument that religion works against human freedom is at least nearly as old as recorded history. But celebrated economist F.A. Hayek (himself a non-religionist) makes a compelling argument in his book The Fatal Conceit that religion plays an indispensible and unparalleled role in transmitting the moral code essential to human liberty. (It would be easy to challenge my one-sentence synopsis of chapter nine of Hayek’s book, but I suggest reading Hayek’s well organized thoughts before doing so.)
Similarly, it has been shown time and time again that a healthy family structure functions to decrease harmful dependency and increase human liberty. This is true, even if the family has no particular devotion to freedom.
So, it seems to me that the test of whether an organization is liberal or illiberal must come down to its actual effect on liberty. We may classify an institution as liberal if its overall effect supports liberty, even if some of its actions work against it (since few human organizations are pure). I also believe that many organizations have transitioned over time from liberal to illiberal and vice versa.
Thus, I also contend that it takes vision and effort to create and maintain liberal institutions. I somewhat disagree with various strict libertarians that such structures would spontaneously pop up and naturally continue without concerted and united effort. To the extent that this does occur, these institutions owe much to the freedom-friendly environment fostered by other liberal institutions and the deliberate effort to promote such an environment.
Since organizations are continually in flux, it is imperative that we work to make sure that our liberal institutions continue to advance liberty. I also believe we have a duty stand against illiberal institutions, and to try to correct them where possible. The good thing about the work of liberty is that each person, regardless of their status in life, can and should do their part to support the cause of freedom.