Liberty Matters

Reply to Ralph Raico, David Gordon, and Jason Brennan

My thanks to Ralph Raico, David Gordon, and Jason Brennan for their thoughtful commentaries. They covered an extremely broad range of topics, so, given my space limitations, I am unable to reply to everything. Perhaps I can comment on neglected points in subsequent exchanges.
(1) Ralph wrote: “Ludwig von Mises noted the fact that liberalism is quintessentially Western, but, again, did not explain why.”
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In the opinion of Mises, liberalism was largely a product of the Enlightenment. In Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, he referred to “the dislike which the Church has shown for economic liberty and political Liberalism in any form.” Mises continued:
Liberalism is the flower of that rational Enlightenment which dealt a death blow to the regime of the old Church and from which modern historical criticism has sprung. It was Liberalism that undermined the power of the classes that had for centuries been closely bound up with the Church. It transformed the world more than Christianity had ever done. It restored humanity to the world and to life.[18]
Ralph wrote: “In my view, a reliable guide to the history of liberty is Lord Acton.”
I share Ralph’s enthusiasm for Acton. Indeed, I first became familiar with Acton’s account of the history of western freedom from one of Ralph’s brilliant lectures in the late 1970s, and I later published two articles on what I call the “Acton Thesis.”[19] It should be understood, however, that Acton did not regard the Church as a powerful force for liberty per se after Constantine forged an alliance between Christianity and the Roman state during the fourth century.
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According to Acton, neither church nor state (i.e., the secular powers) favored liberty, but, while competing for allies, each granted various immunities and privileges to towns, parliaments, universities, guilds, and other corporations. Eventually some of these institutions were able to resist the power of both church and state – and so there evolved a decentralized system of power unknown to the ancient world and the East. Individual liberty was a happy byproduct of this system. As Acton wrote in “The History of Freedom in Christianity": “If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the kings whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority.”[20] Thus the primary role of the Church in the history of western freedom lay not in its liberal tendencies but in functioning as a counterweight to competing secular powers.[21]
Ralph wrote that “St. Augustine and other Christian writers had desacralized the state and thus radically altered the conception prevalent in Greco-Roman antiquity.” This is certainly a legitimate point, but there is another side to the story. Augustine, for example, developed a systematic justification of religious persecution that would exert a profound and deleterious influence for centuries to come.
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Moreover, like many Church Fathers, Augustine used the doctrine of original sin to justify slavery and the state. In this approach human laws should function as a divinely ordained punishment and remedy for sin, not as a protection for individual freedom. We see one of many consequences of this theory in Augustine’s account of the degenerative causes that led to the sack of Rome in 410. Among other things, Augustine blamed the moral laissez-faire of Rome. I know of no better description in ancient literature of a free society than is described in the following passage, but Augustine condemned the very policies that later classical liberals and libertarians would defend.
The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a man’s own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he like about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent.[22][Editor: In the edition used on the OLL the quote comes from City Of God, Book II, chap. 20. "Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let every one with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him."]
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To conclude: Christianity was an extremely broad stream of thought; to use A.V. Dicey’s metaphors, it contained ideological currents, counter-currents, and cross-currents. In my opinion, to speak of the historical influence of Christianity on such-and-such is to reify an abstraction. I would be the last to deny the indispensable role that countless Christians played in the development of free institutions and libertarian ideas, but important contributions were also made by deists, secularists, atheists, and so forth.
(2) I shall now turn to some of David Gordon’s comments.
David wrote: “George quotes a puzzling remark from Locke: At any rate, it has puzzled me. ‘The rightness of an action does not depend on its utility; on the contrary, its utility is a result of its rightness.’…What exactly does Locke mean?”
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The sentence I quoted by Locke is the last line of his Essays on the Law of Nature.[23] Locke wished to rebut the claim that there is “no such thing as a natural law of justice, or, if it exists, it is the height of folly, inasmuch as to be mindful of the advantages of others is to do harm to oneself.” Locke was addressing the argument that “each person’s own interest is the standard of what is just and right,” and that “nothing in nature is binding except so far as it carries with it some immediate personal advantage.” Locke replied, in essence, that our estimates of personal advantage cannot be the “basis of natural law,” because we would be unable to pursue our rational interests in a society with no regard for the natural law of justice, a society in which there is no security for life and property. Locke concluded that “utility is not the basis of the [natural] law or the ground of obligation, but the consequence of obedience to it.” In other words, justice is the standard that must be followed if the goal of utility is to be achieved. It is in this sense that the utility of an action is the result of its rightness. It is by adhering to the latter than we attain the former.
David wrote: “In sum, the supporters of natural rights argued in this way. ‘In order to figure out how to lead a good life, we need to examine human nature. If we do so, we will discover that people require a protected sphere of activity in order to flourish. Living in a society that guarantees this sphere of activity though rights that the government cannot violate will best promote human flourishing.’ Does this not raise a question? Are not people who argue in the way just described themselves appealing to social utility?”
Yes. But as I pointed out at various places in my book, this traditional approach to natural rights invoked social utility (or the public good, or the greatest happiness, etc.) as the purpose of legislation, not as its standard. Only by using natural rights as the standard of legislation can public utility (which cannot be calculated directly) be achieved.
David wrote: “Did Bodin speak of the sovereign’s right to compel obedience?”
Unfortunately, I cannot say without further research whether or not Bodin referred explicitly to the right of a sovereign to compel obedience, but he certainly wrote about the “rights of sovereignty” and the “rights of majesty” at various places in Six Books of the Commonwealth. And in at least one instance, Bodin used the term “inalienable” in regard to the rights that constitute the “marks of sovereignty.”
Here I am omitting many petty rights on which sovereign princes insist in one or another country, but which are in no way marks of sovereignty. For the latter are proper to all sovereign princes to the exclusion of all other lords having administration of justice, magistrates, and subjects; and by their very nature they are untransferable, inalienable, and imprescriptible.[24]
Since the power of legislation was one of Bodin’s inalienable rights of sovereignty, I don’t think it is a stretch, given the meaning of “legislation,” to translate this as the inalienable right of a sovereign to compel obedience.
(3) Since Jason agreed with much of what I had to say in my book, it is difficult to find something to disagree with him about. There is, however, one issue that I would like to discuss briefly, namely Jason’s distinction between “rightful freedoms” and “wrongful freedoms.”
In Chapter 7 of my book (p. 139), I wrote:
This conception of freedom as a social concept is a recurring theme of liberal individualism (though it was not always consistently upheld). In linking “a state of perfect freedom” to “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another,” Locke set the stage for later liberals who attempted to express social freedom in terms of a universal principle of equality.
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I then quoted Kant’s “universal law” of freedom and Spencer’s “law of equal freedom.” [25] The point here is that an important strain in classical liberalism – one with which I largely agree – conceives of “freedom” as a social state of affairs in which no coercion is present. Thus if a man points a gun at me and demands money, he is not exercising a “wrongful freedom” to steal; rather, by introducing coercion into our relationship, he has violated the social condition known as “freedom.” Thanks to his action, we are in a coercive relationship rather than in a free relationship.
Unfortunately, classical liberals were sometimes unclear about the meaning of “freedom,” and I can think of a number of instances in the literature that would support Jason’s distinction between rightful and wrongful freedom. Nevertheless, when liberals referred to a “free” society, they typically meant a society in which every (competent) adult is able to exercise equal rights. And implicit in this notion of equal rights, I believe, is the idea of equal freedom that Kant and Spencer would later formulate explicitly.
[18] Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981), 382. </title/1060/104099/2216496>.
[19] See my 1992 article for the Acton Institute, “Christianity and Liberty,” at: <htp://>. For a more detailed discussion of the Acton Thesis, see my Excursions Essay for the Cato Institute, “Lord Acton and the History of Liberty, Part 3” (March 19, 2013) at: <>.
[20] Essays on Freedom and Power, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Boston: Beacon Press, 1948), 62. This is from the same passage quoted by Ralph. The edition on the OLL is John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907). </title/75>.
[21] As I point out in my Cato essay (cited above), various secular historians before Acton, such as Voltaire, Condorcet, and W.E.H. Lecky, employed a similar thesis, though Acton developed that thesis more broadly and in more detail than any of his predecessors. [See also works in the OLL by Voltaire (1694-1778); Condorcet (1743-1794); William Lecky (1838-1903)].
[22] Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 1967), 71. The edition of "The City of God" on the OLL is Philip Schaff, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. II St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, LL.D. (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Co., 1887). </title/2053/152827>. [The full passage from the OLL version: "But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let every one with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshippers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperilled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind. What sane man would compare a republic such as this, I will not say to the Roman empire, but to the palace of Sardanapalus, the ancient king who was so abandoned to pleasures, that he caused it to be inscribed on his tomb, that now that he was dead, he possessed only those things which he had swallowed and consumed by his appetites while alive? If these men had such a king as this, who, while self-indulgent, should lay no severe restraint on them, they would more enthusiastically consecrate to him a temple and a flamen than the ancient Romans did to Romulus."]
[23] Locke: Political Essays, ed. Mark Goldie (Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press), 79-133.
[24] Bodin on Sovereignty, ed. and trans. Julian H. Franklin (Cambridge, U.K., 1992), 87.
[25] [Editor: In the edition of Kant's Science of Right (1796) on the OLL the quote is: "‘Every Action is right which in itself, or in the maxim on which it proceeds, is such that it can co-exist along with the Freedom of the Will of each and all in action, according to a universal Law.’ If, then, my action or my condition generally can co-exist with the freedom of every other, according to a universal Law, any one does me a wrong who hinders me in the performance of this action, or in the maintenance of this condition. For such a hindrance or obstruction cannot co-exist with Freedom according to universal Laws." From Immanuel Kant, The Philosophy of Law: An Exposition of the Fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence as the Science of Right, by Immanuel Kant, trans. W. Hastie (Edinburgh: Clark, 1887). Introduction to the Science of Right. C. Universal Principle of Right. </title/359/55687>.
The quote from Spencer comes from Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851), Part II, Chap. IV "Derivation of a First Principle": "This, however, is not the right of one but of all. All are endowed with faculties. All are bound to fulfil the Divine will by exercising them. All therefore must be free to do those things in which the exercise of them consists. That is, all must have rights to liberty of action. And hence there necessarily arises a limitation. For if men have like claims to that freedom which is needful for the exercise of their faculties, then must the freedom of each be bounded by the similar freedom of all. When, in the pursuit of their respective ends, two individuals clash, the movements of the one remain free only in so far as they do not interfere with the like movements of the other. This sphere of existence into which we are thrown not affording room for the unrestrained activity of all, and yet all possessing in virtue of their constitutions similar claims to such unrestrained activity, there is no course but to apportion out the unavoidable restraint equally. Wherefore we arrive at the general proposition, that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man." </title/273/6206/932826>.]