Monday, March 30, 2009

Institutions of Liberty

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious about the source of your list - "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.'

Is that a list of your making or did you take that list from some outside source?

Frank Staheli said...

It's frustrating how the word "liberal" has become adulterated. We should perhaps begin referring to "liberal" politicians as "illiberals" in order to help clarify the important point that liberal used to mean "in defense of human liberty".

I suspect that some people can be non-religious and still support institutions of liberty, but I agree with you and Hayek that religion works better than just about anything else to transmit the moral code to future generations.

Scott Hinrichs said...

David, the list was just something off the top of my head. It's not all inclusive, by any means. I suppose some might have valid points in taking exception with some of the items on my list.

Frank, we don't get to control the language. No one does, really. Some try, but time, people, and events alter the way words are used and what people in general think words mean. But, unable to come up with a better word, I felt the clarification was necessary.

I did not mean to imply that non-religious people and non-religious institutions could not be among those that effectively promote liberty. I simply meant to explain why religious groups can be institutions of liberty, although, I think it is clear that some religious groups are illiberal institutions.

Charles D said...

Liberty itself is a concept that is open to interpretation and debate. Before considering the conditions under which liberty can exist or thrive, we have to understand what we mean by the term liberty, even the dictionary definitions are confusing.

I would take liberty to mean that I have the freedom to speak and act and refrain from speaking and acting as I wish as long as I do not interfere with the freedom of another to do the same. Except for Utopian theories, liberty cannot exist in the absence of government since liberty requires order - some mechanism to address those disputes which arise between men and women who attempt to exercise their personal liberty.

Government in turn has two methods by which to impose the necessary order: Force, which necessitates such a significant loss of liberty that it is illiberal; and cooperative effort. In the latter, individuals agree to give up some portion of their liberty so that they can be free to enjoy the rest.

To sustain a cooperative or democratic society, men and women must have respect for one another, and must have an equal opportunity to exercise their personal liberty.

Beyond that point, we enter the realm of organization of society. Do we see ourselves as a collection of autonomous individuals with no responsibility for one another except that which we freely choose, or do we see ourselves as members of a community that must work together to achieve the blessings that liberty can bring?

Scott Hinrichs said...

DL, thank you for stating your views on liberty. I completely agree that appropriate government is necessary to the enabling and continuation of liberty.

As for the question you pose, I think that this is the point upon which most political disagreements are based. Exactly how much of our liberties is it appropriate to suspend in order to sustain a civil society?

Volumes have been written and will still be written about this. Some of this can be localized, while some cannot.

For example, my city has zoning that imposes restrictions on property owners. Some of my libertarian neighbors got a proposal on the ballot a few years ago to do away with all zoning in the city, under the argument that it infringed on private property rights. The vast majority of voters saw that in a city such as ours, it is prudent to enact certain restrictions on private property for a civil society.

A friend of mine lives in an unincorporated area of Idaho. There are far fewer property restrictions there, but population density is lower and there are also far fewer services.

In both cases, the zoning laws are appropriate to the community. And few of us would want the national government imposing local zoning rules. But there are clearly matters that must devolve to higher levels of government to ensure a broader civil society.

I am fond of saying that each member of a free society actually has responsibilities within that society. As the saying goes, freedom is not free. I think that most would agree with this sentiment. However, much disagreement exists as to what those responsibilities are.