Front Page Titles (by Subject) 8: Some Difficulties Analyzed - Freedom and the Law (LF ed.)
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8: Some Difficulties Analyzed - Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law (LF ed.) 
Freedom and the Law, expanded 3rd edition, foreword by Arthur Kemp (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1991).
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Some Difficulties Analyzed
Let us consider some of the objections that might be raised against a system in which group decisions and decision groups would play a much less important role than is now commonly deemed necessary in political life.
No doubt present-day governments and legislatures and a large percentage of the well-educated and of the people in general have gradually grown accustomed, during the last hundred years, to considering interference by the authorities with private activities as much more useful than they would have deemed it in the first half of the nineteenth century.
If anyone at present dares to suggest that big governments and paternal legislatures ought to give up in favor of private initiative, the usual criticisms heard are that “we cannot put the clock back,” that the times of laissez faire have gone forever, and so on.
We ought to distinguish carefully between what people believe can be done and what it would be possible to do towards restoring the maximum area of free individual choice. Of course, in politics as well as in many other areas, if we try to achieve our ends in accordance with liberal principles, nothing can be done without the consent of our fellow citizens, and this consent depends, in its turn, on what people believe. But it is obviously important to ascertain, if possible, whether people are right or wrong in maintaining any opinion whatever. Public opinion is not everything, not even in a liberal society, although opinion is certainly a very important thing, especially in a liberal society. I am reminded of what one of my fellow citizens wrote several years ago: “A fool is a fool, two fools are two fools, five hundred fools are five hundred fools, but five thousand, not to say five million, fools are a great historical force.” I do not deny the truth of this cynical statement, but a historical force may be contained or modified, and this is the more likely to be so the more the facts turn out to disprove what people believe. What Hippolyte Taine once said, that ten million instances of ignorance do not make knowledge, is true of every kind of ignorance, including that of people belonging to contemporary political societies, with all their appendages of democratic procedures, majority rules, and omnipotent legislatures and governments.
The fact that people in general still believe that governmental intervention is suitable or actually necessary even in cases where many economists would deem it useless or dangerous is not an insurmountable obstacle for supporters of a new society. Nor is there anything wrong if that new society in the end resembles many older, successful societies.
True, socialistic doctrines, with the more or less overt condemnation, on the part of governments and legislators, of individual freedom from constraint, are still proving to be more palatable to the masses of the present day than the cool reasoning of the economists. The case for freedom under these conditions seems to be hopeless in most countries of the world.
Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether or not the masses are actually the protagonists in the contemporary drama of public opinion relating to individual freedom. If I must choose sides among the supporters of the liberal ideal in our time, I should prefer to join Professor Mises rather than the pessimists:
The main error of widespread pessimism is the belief that the destructionist ideas and policies of our age sprang from the proletarians and are a “revolt of the masses.” In fact, the masses, precisely because they are not creative and do not develop philosophies of their own, follow leaders. The ideologies which produced all the mischiefs and catastrophes of our century are not an achievement of the mob. They are the feats of pseudo scholars and pseudo intellectuals. They were propagated from the chairs of universities and from the pulpits; they were disseminated by the press, by novels, by plays, by the movies, and the radio. The intellectuals are responsible for converting the masses to socialism and interventionism. What is needed to turn the flood is to change the mentality of the intellectuals. Then the masses will follow suit.1
I would not go so far as to think, as Professor Mises seems to do, that to change the mentality of the so-called intellectuals would be an easy task. Professor Mises has pointed out in his recent book, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, that what causes many so-called intellectuals to range themselves among the enemies of individual freedom and free enterprise are not only or mainly wrong arguments or insufficient information about the whole subject, but rather emotional attitudes, for instance, envy of successful businessmen or feelings of inferiority to them. If this is so, cool reasoning and better information will prove as useless in converting the intellectuals as they would be in converting directly the “dull and mentally inert people” belonging to the masses that crowd the political scene.
Fortunately, not all uneducated men are so “dull” as to be unable to understand or to reason correctly for themselves, particularly when this relates to ordinary experience in daily life. In many obvious cases their experience does not confirm the theories advanced by the enemies of individual freedom. In many other cases the socialistic interpretation has as little cogency as other sophistical arguments that have proved more convincing to the so-called intellectuals than to uneducated people judging solely by common sense. The trend of socialistic propaganda in the present day seems to confirm this fact. The strange and complicated theory of so-called “surplus value” is no longer expounded to the public by contemporary agents of Marxian socialism, notwithstanding the fact that Marx had assigned to this very theory the task of supporting theoretically all his attacks against the alleged exploitation of the workers on the part of capitalistic employers.
Meanwhile, Marxian philosophy is still recommended to the intellectuals of today as an up-to-date interpretation of the world. Much more emphasis now seems to be placed on the purportedly philosophical than on the political content of the works of such representatives of communism as V. I. Lenin.
On the other hand, many economic teachings relating to the suitability of individual freedom for all kinds of people, including socialists, are such simple developments of common-sense assumptions in special fields that their correctness cannot escape, in the end, the common sense of common people, regardless of the teachings of demagogues and of socialistic propaganda of all kinds.
All these facts encourage the hope that people in general may become persuaded, at some time or other, to adopt liberal principles (in the European sense of the word) in many more matters and in a more consistent way than they do today.
A different question is to ascertain whether liberal principles are always based on cogent reasoning on the part of the representatives of the peculiar science called economics, on the one hand, and of representatives of that older discipline called political science, on the other.
This is a significant and important question on the solution of which may well depend the possibility of speaking of a system of individual freedom in politics as well as in economics.
Let us set aside the problem of the relations between science, on the one hand, and political or economic ideals, on the other. Science is not to be confused with ideology, although the latter may consist of a set of choices relating to possible political or economic systems inevitably connected in many ways with the results of economic and political science conceived of as “neutral” or “value-free” activities, according to Weber’s theory of the social sciences. I think that Weber’s distinction between “value-free” activities and ideologies as sets of value judgments is still valid, but we need not discuss this particular topic at length.
Much more difficult, it seems to me, is the methodological question of the cogency of economic and of political reasoning if compared with other kinds of reasoning—for example, that in mathematics or in the natural sciences.
I am convinced personally that the chief reason why political and economic issues are so frequently a cause of disagreements and disputes is precisely the lack of the same cogency on the part of the corresponding theories that reasoning and demonstration have in other scientific fields. I do not agree with Hobbes that arithmetic would be completely different from what it is if only it were important for some motivating power that two plus two be equal to five and not four. I doubt that any power whatever could transform arithmetic according to its interests or desires. On the contrary: I am convinced that it is important for any power whatever to make no attempt to transform arithmetic into the curious kind of science it would become on Hobbes” supposition. On the other hand, some power may indeed find some profit in supporting this or that purportedly scientific thesis whenever, but only whenever, there is no certainty about the final result of the scientific process itself.
In this connection, a restatement of what we call a scientific demonstration in our time would be worthwhile. Perhaps the situation of the social sciences as a whole would be improved a great deal by a dispassionate and extensive analysis in this field. But in the meantime things are what they are. Several limitations attach to economic as well as political theories, even if we consider them empirical or aprioristic inferences.
Methodological problems are important because of the connection they have with the possibility of economists” reaching unequivocal conclusions and therefore inducing other people to accept these conclusions as premises for their choices, not only in regard to their daily action in private life and business, but also in regard to the political and economic systems to be adopted by the community.
Economics as an empirical science has not yet, unfortunately, attained the ability to offer indubitable conclusions, and the attempts so frequently made in our time by economists to play the role of physicists are probably much more damaging than useful in inducing people to make their choices according to the results of that science.2
Of particular interest is some recent methodological research concerning economics, as presented by Professor Milton Friedman in his brilliant Essays in Positive Economics.
I quite agree with Professor Friedman when he says that “the denial to economics of the dramatic and direct evidence of the crucial experiment does hinder the adequate testing of hypotheses,” and that this places a considerable “difficulty . . . in the way of achieving a reasonably prompt and wide consensus on the conclusions justified by the available evidence.”
Professor Friedman points out in this connection that this “renders the weeding-out of unsuccessful hypotheses slow and difficult” so that “they are seldom downed for good and are always cropping up again.” He quotes, as a very convincing example, “the evidence from inflations on the hypothesis that a substantial increase in the quantity of money within a relatively short period is accompanied by a substantial increase in prices.” Here, as Professor Friedman points out,
the evidence is dramatic, and the chain of reasoning required to interpret it is relatively short. Yet, despite numerous instances of substantial rises in prices, their essentially one-to-one correspondence with substantial rises in the stock of money, and the wide variation of other circumstances that might appear to be relevant, each new experience of inflation brings forth vigorous contentions, and not only by the lay public, that the rise in the stock of money is either an incidental effect of a rise in prices produced by other factors or a purely fortuitous and unnecessary concomitant of the price rise.3
In principle, too, I agree with what Professor Friedman maintains in this analysis of the role of empirical evidence in the theoretical work of economics and of the social sciences as well as of other sciences in general, namely, that empirical assumptions are not to be tested on the basis of their presumed description of reality, but on the basis of their success in rendering possible sufficiently accurate predictions.
But I do object to the assimilation, which Professor Friedman proposes, of hypotheses in physical theory with hypotheses in economics, in disregard of certain relevant and important differences between them.
Friedman takes as an example of the first type the hypothesis that the acceleration of a body falling in a vacuum is a constant and is independent of the shape of the body, the manner of dropping it, and so on. All this is expressed by the well-known formula:
On the other hand, Professor Friedman (with Professor Savage) takes as a parallel example involving human behavior that of shots made by an expert billiard player—shots to be predicted in some way by the spectators through some kind of hypotheses.
According to Friedman and Savage,
it seems not at all unreasonable that excellent predictions [italics added] would be yielded by the hypothesis that the billiard player made his shots as if he knew the complicated mathematical formulae that would give the optimum directions of travel, could estimate accurately by eye the angles, etc. . . ., describing the location of the balls, could make lightning calculations from the formulae, and could then make the balls travel in the direction indicated by the formulae.5
Professor Friedman states quite rightly in this respect that
our confidence in this hypothesis is not based on the belief that billiard players, even expert ones, can or do go through the process described; it derives rather from the belief that, unless in some way or other they were capable of reaching essentially the same result, they would not in fact be expert billiard players.6
The only trouble with this comparison, in my opinion, is that in the former case our hypothesis could allow us to predict, say, the speed of a falling body at any instant whatever with a reasonable approximation, while in the latter case we are not able to predict anything, much less make “excellent predictions” about the shots of a billiard player other than that they will probably be “good shots.” In fact, the mere hypothesis that the billiard player will behave as if he knew all the physical laws connected with a billiard game tells us very little about those laws and even less about the position of the balls after any future shot by our brilliant player. In other words, we are not permitted a prevision of the kind allowed by the application of the hypothesis relating to a body falling in air.
The way in which the comparison is made seems to me to imply or to suggest that we could make any calculation whatever in order to predict, for instance, the future position of the balls on the billiard table after any shot by our player. But this is not the case. A friend of mine, Eugenio Frola, professor of mathematics at the University of Turin, and I, after considering the problem, came to some rather amusing conclusions.
To begin with, any billiard player may locate the ball—or find it located—in an infinite number of initial positions defined by a system of Cartesian co-ordinates corresponding to two edges of the billiard plane. Each of these positions is a combination of the infinite numbers that may be assumed by these two co-ordinates, and the total may therefore be mathematically symbolized as ∞2. Moreover, we ought to take into account the inclination and the direction of the stick at the moment when the player hits the ball. Here we are again confronted with an infinite number of combinations of these factors that may be symbolized, in their turn, as ∞2. Besides, the ball may be hit on an infinite number of points, each of them being defined by a latitude and by a longitude on the surface of the ball. Again we have another infinite number of combinations that may be symbolized as before by ∞2. Another factor to be taken into consideration in order to make predictions about the final position of the ball is the force of the impact when the ball is hit by our player. We are here once more in the presence of an infinite number of possibilities, corresponding to the impulse applied and designated by the symbol ∞.
If we bring together all the factors we ought to take into consideration to predict what will happen to the ball at the moment of impact, we obtain a result that may be symbolized as ∞7, which means that the possible factors to be taken into consideration are as numerous as the points of a seven-dimensional space.
Nor is this the end of the story. For each shot we ought also to determine the motion, that is, the way the ball will rotate on the billiard table’s plane, and so on, which would require a system of differential nonlinear equations that is not easy to solve. Moreover, we ought to take into consideration the way the ball will hit the edges of the table, how much speed it will lose because of it, what will be the new rotation of the ball as a consequence of the hit, and so on. Finally, we ought to express the general solution, in order to calculate how many successful cases an expert player ought to consider each time before hitting the ball, in terms of the rules of the game, the physical nature of the table, and the probable ability of the player’s adversaries to exploit the resulting situation on their own behalf.
All this indicates how different are such examples of working hypotheses as those formulated in some parts of physics (like that relating to falling bodies) from hypotheses relating to apparently not very complicated problems like those of a billiard game, the difficulties of which escape the attention of most people.
It is safe to say that our hypothesis that a good billiard player will behave as if he knew how to solve the scientific problems involved in his game, far from allowing any real prediction of the future shots of our player, is but a metaphor to express confidence that he will make “good shots” in the future as he did in the past. We are like a physicist who, instead of applying his hypotheses relating to the bodies falling in air in order to predict, for instance, their speed at any moment, would simply say that the body will fall as if it knew the laws relating to its motions and obeyed them, while the physicist himself would be unable to formulate these laws in order to make any calculation whatever.
Professor Friedman states that
it is only a short step from these examples to the economic hypothesis that under a wide range of circumstances individual firms behave as if they were seeking rationally to maximize their expected returns, and had full knowledge of the data needed to succeed in this attempt; as if, that is, they knew the relevant cost and demand functions, calculated marginal cost and marginal revenue from all actions open to them, and pushed each line of action to the point at which the relevant marginal cost and marginal revenue were equal.7
I agree that there is only a short step from the preceding example to the new one, provided that we consider both as merely metaphors expressing our generic confidence in the ability of good business men to remain in the market, in the same way as we could express our confidence that a good billiard player will win as many games in the future as he did in the past.
But there would be more than a short step from the example of the billiard player to the example of a firm in the market if it is implied that we could calculate in some scientific way the results of the activity of that firm at any given time in the future.
The difficulties of such a calculation are much more formidable than the problems relating to successful solutions of a billiard game. Human activity in business is not only related to the maximization of returns in monetary terms. Many other factors relating to human behavior must be taken into consideration and cannot be ignored in favor of a numerical interpretation of maximization. This renders the problem of calculating such maxima in economics much more complicated than the numerical problems relating to the successful cases in a billiard game. In other words, while the maximization of success in a billiard game may be a numerical problem, the maximization of success in the economy is not identifiable with the maximization of monetary returns; i.e., it is not a numerical problem. Maximization problems in the economy are not mathematical problems at all, and the concept of a maximum in economic behavior is not identical with the concept of a maximum as this is employed in mathematics. We are here confronted with a semantic confusion comparable to that of a man who, having heard about the existence of the most beautiful girl in the city, would undertake a mathematical calculation of the maximum beauty possible to all girls in order to discover her.
If we continue our comparison of the problems of a billiard player with economic problems, we ought to take into consideration a situation (comparable to that prevailing in the economic domain) in which the billiard table itself would move, the edges would expand and contract without any regularity, the balls would go and come in their turn without waiting for the hits of the players, and, above all, somebody sooner or later would change the laws governing all these processes, as happens so frequently when legislatures and governments intervene to change the rules of the economic “game” in a given country.
Economics as an aprioristic science would be no less doomed to failure, even if we could expect, from its tautologies alone, to find all the conclusions needed to settle questions vital to the lives of particular individuals as well as members of a political and economic community. In this respect I agree completely with Professor Friedman when he says that while “the canons of formal logic alone can show whether a particular language is complete and consistent . . . factual evidence alone can show whether the categories of the analytical filing system have an empirical counterpart, that is, whether they are useful in analyzing a particular class of concrete problems.” And I agree, too, when he cites, as an example, the use of the categories of demand and supply, the usefulness of which “depends on the empirical generalizations that an enumeration of the forces affecting demand in any problem and of the forces affecting supply will yield two lists that contain few items in common.” But as soon as we enter the field of empirical assumptions, all the limitations we have seen relating to the empirical approach in economics will emerge, the result being that so far neither the empirical nor the aprioristic approach in economics is fully satisfactory.
This implies, of course, that the choice of a system of individual freedom on the part of educated people as well as of people in general certainly cannot be brought about by economic arguments of which the cogency would be comparable to that of corresponding arguments in mathematics or in several parts of physics.
The same considerations apply to political science, whether or not we consider it a science on the same level as economics.
There is still a wide fringe of questionable points, a sort of no-man’s land, that superficial thinkers and demagogues of all countries are carefully cultivating in their way, to grow in it every kind of mushrooms, including many poisonous ones, served up to their fellow citizens as if they were the products of scientific work.
We must admit frankly that it is difficult not only to teach people scientific conclusions, but also to find appropriate arguments to convince people that our teachings are correct. There is some consolation in the fact that, according to liberal ideals, only a few general assumptions need to be accepted in order to found and to carry out a liberal system, for it belongs to the very nature of such a system to let people work as they think best, provided that they do not interfere with the similar work of other people.
On the other hand, free collaboration on the part of the individuals concerned does not necessarily imply that the choices of each individual are worse than they would be under the direction of economists or political scientists. I was once told that a famous economist of our time had almost ruined his aunt by giving her, at her insistent request, confidential advice about the stock market. Everyone knows his personal situation and is probably in a better position than anybody else to make decisions about many questions relating to it. Everyone probably has more to gain from a system in which his decisions would not be interfered with by the decisions of other people than he has to lose by the fact that he could not interfere in turn with other people’s decisions.
Moreover, a system of free choice in the economic as well as in the political domain gives to each individual the precious possibility, on the one hand, of abstaining from all concern with questions he finds too complicated and too difficult and, besides, rather unimportant, and, on the other hand, of asking for the collaboration of other people in order to solve problems that it would be both difficult and important for him to solve. There is no reason to think that people would not behave in this respect as they do in any other similar circumstance, when they go, for instance, to their lawyer or their doctor or their psychiatrist. This does not mean, of course, that there are experts who can solve every kind of problem. It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves in this connection of what we have said about economic reasoning. But whenever there is no possibility of any objective solution of a problem, the conclusion to be drawn is not that individuals ought to act under the direction of the authorities, but, on the contrary, that the authorities should refrain from giving instructions that cannot be based on objective solutions of the problems concerned.
Few advocates of contemporary socialistic solutions would admit that their theories are not based on objective reasoning. But it is quite sufficient, in most cases, to conclude that their objections to a maximum area of individual choice are based on philosophical, or rather, on ethical, postulates of dubious validity and also on economic arguments that are even more dubious.
The often-heard slogan that “we cannot put the clock back” in economics or in politics, besides being a proud boast that socialistic ideas are widespread, seems also to imply that the particular socialistic clock indicates not only the right time, but also a time that is conceived of as right without need of any demonstration. We cannot be very happy with this implication.
The adversaries of a free economic system in our day have not added a single new, solid item to the agenda on the part of governments and legislatures that had been already compiled by those classical economists who recommended a liberal system.
As far as the economy is concerned, and the economy is actually a favorite field for all the advocates of coercive procedures at the present time, the nationalization of several kinds of industries is often deemed a necessary or, at least, a suitable substitute for private enterprises regulated according to laws and orders issued by the authorities.
Many reasons are alleged in support of such nationalization. Some of them are perhaps acceptable, although they are not new, while others that are new are not acceptable at all on the basis of the arguments that their advocates present.
From a statement of the policy and principles of the so-called British democratic socialism, published by the British Labour Party in 1950, we learn that there are three main principles supporting the idea of nationalization or public ownership of industries:
(1) To ensure that monopolies—whenever they are “unavoidable”—do not “exploit” the public, which would necessarily happen, according to these socialists, if monopolies were private.
(2) To “control” basic industries and services on which the economic life and welfare of the community depend, because control cannot be “safely” left in the hands of private owners “not answerable” to the community.
(3) To deal with industries in which “inefficiency” persists and where the private owners lack either the will or the capacity to make improvements.
None of these principles is really convincing, if submitted to careful analysis. Monopolies, whenever necessary, may be easily controlled by the authorities without any necessity for the latter to substitute their initiative for that of the monopoly controlled by them. On the other hand, there is no valid demonstration that public monopolies, that is, monopolies exercised by public authorities or by other people delegated by them, would not exploit the public or would exploit the public less than private monopolies. Indeed, historical evidence in many countries proves that monopolies exercised by public authorities may exploit the public much more consistently and much less precariously than private ones. Controlling the authorities through other authorities or through private persons proves to be much more difficult than controlling private monopolists through the authorities or even through other private individuals or groups.
The second principle, that so-called control of basic industries cannot be left in the hands of private owners, implies both the idea that private owners cannot be made answerable in some way to the community for their control of the basic industries and that public owners are answerable to the community in any respect. Unfortunately for the advocates of nationalization, on the basis of this principle neither the former nor the latter implication can be demonstrated by any valid argument. Private owners are answerable to the community for the simple reason that they must depend on it both to sell their products and to buy raw materials, plants, services, capital, equipment, and so on, in order to produce what they intend to sell. If they refuse to meet the exigencies of the community, they lose their customers and cannot remain in the market. They must then give way to other, more “answerable” controllers of basic industries. On the other hand, the public authorities do not depend at all on the community in the same way, since they can impose, in principle, through laws and orders, in a coercive way, prices of goods and services so as to take advantage, if necessary, both of other sellers and of other buyers. Moreover, they are not doomed to failure, as they can always compensate, at least in principle, for the losses they happen to cause to their industries by imposing further taxation on the citizens, that is, on the community they are purportedly “answerable” to. Of course, the advocates of public ownership of basic industries will maintain that the authorities must be elected, that they therefore “represent” the community, and so on. But we know this story already and have seen what it means: a rather empty ceremony and a mostly symbolic control of a handful of rulers on the part of the electorate.
The third principle is no less dubious than the preceding ones. There is no valid argument to demonstrate either that industries owe their possible inefficiency to their private ownership or that efficiency will be recovered through the initiative of public authorities when private ownership gives way to public ownership.
The underlying assumption of all these principles is that public authorities are not only more honest, but also wiser, more skilled, and more efficient than private persons in conducting economic activities. This assumption is obviously not proved, and there is much historical evidence against it.
Other distinctions, for example, like that between “wants,” for which the individual consumer could pay, and “needs,” for which the individual could not or even would not pay, made by several people in order to justify the nationalization of industries for the purpose of satisfying these “needs” instead of the “wants” that private industries supposedly would satisfy, are based on a similar undemonstrated idea, namely, that the authorities are better qualified to discover and even to satisfy individual “needs” that private citizens would not be able or even might not want to satisfy if they were free to choose.
Of course, some old arguments in favor of nationalization still hold good. This is the case with industries or services of which the whole cost cannot be paid by charging the consumers because of the difficulties involved in assessing them individually (as, for instance, in the case of lighthouses) or because of complications arising from the collection of the charges (as in the case of busy roads, bridges, and so on). In these cases, perhaps, private industry would not find it profitable to supply goods or services, and some other system must step in. But it is interesting to notice that in these cases the principle of free choice in economic activities is not abandoned or even put in doubt. It is admitted that people who freely chose these services would be willing to pay for them if it were possible and that therefore they can be taxed with reference to their presumed benefit and to the cost of it. Taxation can never be completely identifiable with the payment of a price under the market system, but it may be considered in this case as a good approximation to the payment of a price under that system. The same cannot be said of other impositions brought about on the socialist assumption that the authorities know better than individuals what those individuals ought to do.
It may be that modern technology and modern ways of life have rendered more frequent cases of services that cannot easily or cannot at all be paid for by the public through the usual system of prices. But it is also true that in several instances this system is still workable and that private enterprise may be kept efficient anyway under new circumstances. The enormous increase in the traffic on the usual roads and bridges in industrialized countries has rendered it difficult or even impossible to keep privately operated turnpikes, but present-day motor roads are bringing back again similar conditions for collecting charges. Another example to be cited in this connection is television and broadcasting. The advocates of public ownership of these enterprises often contend, for instance, that private ownership would be unsuitable because of the impossibility of charging prices, while private enterprise in this sector in the United States has already solved the problem by selling its services to the firms that want to advertise their products to the general public and are prepared to pay for this purpose an amount of money sufficient to defray all the expenses of the broadcast. Even here, some enterprisers might find a way to charge for television if the authorities permitted them to try!
On the other hand, new technological conditions may limit individual freedom—for instance, with reference to the right of property in land—but the general principle that choices are to be left to the individual and not to the authorities may be retained rather satisfactorily under modern conditions in this respect as well. This is demonstrated, for example, by the efficiency of the American system of exploiting oil and mineral resources in accordance with the principle that private property in land must be respected—a principle that has been decidedly disregarded in other countries of the world because of the alleged incompatibility of private ownership with such activities as mining.
Other difficulties may arise from a different kind of consideration. We have tried to define coercion as direct action on the part of some people with the object of hindering others from reaching certain ends and, generally, of inducing them to make choices they would not otherwise have made.
Direct action may be conceived of as physical action, and in all the cases in which coercion is identifiable with physical action we have a simple method of defining what coercion is. But in most cases coercion is exercised through the threat of some kind of physical action that actually does not take place. Coercion is more a feeling of intimidation than a physical event, and the identification of coercion is more difficult than we would imagine at first sight. Threats and the feelings relating to threats constitute a chain of which the links are not easily traceable under all circumstances nor easily definable by other people than the individual concerned. In all such cases the assumption that some action or form of behavior is coercive of the action or the behavior of others is not clear or objective enough to form the basis of an empirically ascertainable statement about it. This is an embarrassment for all supporters of a system of individual freedom, in so far as freedom has a negative character that cannot help being accurately stated without reference to coercion. If we have to state what behavior or action would be “free” in a given case, we must also state what corresponding behavior or action would be coercive, that is, what action would deprive people of their freedom in that case. Whenever there is no certainty about the nature of the corresponding coercion to be avoided, the ascertainment of the circumstances under which we can secure “freedom” for an action and the definition of the content of the latter are very difficult indeed.
To the extent that freedom is not something ascertainable either by empirical or by aprioristic methods, a political and economic system based on “freedom” understood as absence of “constraint” will be subject to a criticism similar to that which we have made in connection with the empirical approach in economics.
This is the reason why a political system based on freedom includes always at least a minimum amount of coercion, not only in the sense of hindering constraint, but also in the sense of determining—for instance, by a majority rule—through a group decision what the group will admit as free and what it will forbid as coercive in all the cases that are not susceptible of an objective determination.
In other words, a system of political or economic freedom is based, above all, on the empirical approach in economics and politics, but it cannot be based completely on it. Thus, there is always some victim of coercion in this “free” system. You may try to convince people to behave in the way you deem “free” and to restrain them from behaving in the way you deem “coercive.” But you cannot always demonstrate that what you deem to be free is actually free or that what you deem to be coercive is actually coercive in an objective sense of the word.
Religious intolerance may be cited as an example of what I mean. There are some people who become indignant if you behave in a way that they deem incompatible with their religious feelings, even if you behave in a way that you yourself would never deem coercive of them. Nevertheless, the latter feel offended by your behavior because, in their eyes, you do something against their God or you fail to do something which you ought to do on behalf of their God and which could possibly bring down the wrath of God upon all concerned. In fact, their God, according to their religion, is also yours, and they are likely to think that your behavior is offensive to them in the same way as it is offensive to the God you have in common with them.
I do not say, of course, that all religions are intolerant. Hinduism, Buddhism, the old Greek and Roman religions were not intolerant, as far as I know, since their supporters would be inclined to admit that you might have your gods just as they had theirs. This is not always the case with other religions. There was a law in England, enacted at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, that forbade people to enjoy entertainment on Sundays. Offenders could be punished, and the victims of the “scandal” could request an indemnification. This law is no longer observed, but several years ago I read in the newspapers that an English girl had filed a suit for damages on this basis against an English movie firm that showed motion pictures, as was customary, on Sundays. According to the newspaper, the girl was rather poor, but she had taken care to select, as the perpetrator of the scandal, a very big movie firm in the center of London. The request for damages—a rather large one—was perfectly adequate to the importance of the firm, although probably not so if compared with the “damages” suffered by the “victim.” I do not remember how the English court concerned decided this case, but I think the Elizabethan law on which it was based may be cited as a good example of what I mean by religious intolerance and by the corresponding “constraint” that some religious people may feel they are suffering because of behavior that nobody else would consider coercive of anybody.
I was reminded of this Elizabethan law some weeks ago as I was sitting outside a coffee house on the main street of a little Italian village. A procession was just passing along the road, and I did not pay any attention to the fact that everybody stood up while the procession went by. A nun in the procession looked at me and, seeing that I was still sitting down without bothering about the action of the other people, reproached me by pointing out that one must stand up when the procession is passing. I do not think that this poor nun was usually an arrogant person. Probably she was a very mild and charitable creature. But she could not admit that anybody should remain seated outside a coffee house while the procession, her procession, the procession of her God, was passing. My being seated in that case was to her an offensive form of behavior, and I am sure that she felt constrained somehow in her feelings, nay, almost insulted, just as I might feel unjustly constrained if somebody were to speak to me with insolence.
Fortunately, the law of my country thus far does not forbid people to sit by the side of the road while a procession is passing by, but I am sure that the nun would immediately approve of a law forbidding such behavior and would, moreover, approve of it in the same way as I would approve of a law that would forbid insults or similar things.
I think there is a lesson in this. But I have finished mine.
[1 ] Ludwig von Mises, Planning for Freedom (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1952), last chapter.
[2 ] Perhaps one should also take account of the damage resulting from physicists” playing the role of economists!
[3 ] M. Friedman, Essays in Positive Economics (University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 11.
[4 ] Ibid., pp. 16-18.
[5 ] Ibid., p. 21.
[6 ] Loc. cit.
[7 ] Loc. cit.