Saturday, February 11, 2012

The meaning of a free society

This is also my entry to a capitalism conference scheduled to be held this summer at Clemson University, SC:

"Man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts."
- Ronald Reagan

Different people have different interpretations of freedom. Some deem it as the right to do whatever one wants, whether self-destructive or otherwise, while others interpret allow the word to encompass the perverse incentive of income security, leaving the beneficiary “free” to pursue their “dreams”, however economically unproductive or socially unappreciated they may be.

While the constitutions of many countries guarantee freedom to their citizens, without a consistent interpretation the word would have no meaning. In my opinion, a free society begins and ends with the concept of self-ownership, implying rightful jurisdiction over one’s physical existence, allowing it to act under the control of the mind. As a corollary, this also means total ownership of the consequences of any such action and the restriction of said action up to where the same freedom begins for another person. For example, freedom cannot include the right to enslave someone, since freedom, by definition, is the right to not be enslaved.

My life experiences have been within the context of two societies that ostensibly claim to be free in their foundations, India and the US. While I was brought up to believe that India was a free society, I now feel that  the existence of the word ‘socialist’ in its constitution has led to the meaning of freedom being usurped. Faced with blatantly left wing governments since its foundation, Indians have been conditioned to believe that freedom means cheap food and gas and “rights” to education and medical care, of course at the expense of the evil industrialist. I, now, understand that such rights can only be provided by the government by laying claims on the labors of those that actually produce such goods. As Ayn Rand said, the smallest minority is the individual. Without freedom for the individual entrepreneur to do what he chooses with the fruits of his own capital, we cannot have a truly free society.

The United States is, obviously, head and shoulders over India in terms of freedom, thanks to its stress on the individual. Individuality was bolstered after Reagan’s coming, after decades of slow decline over the Kennedy and Carter administrations. Recently, however, in the panic emanating from the recent recession, capitalism and individualism are under attack again. People forget that when money and industry seem to have obtained a grip on government, it is government that has gotten too big so as to give the wealthy an incentive to try and influence politics. While the economic crisis is undoubtedly a pity, it is but a natural result of government meddling in financial markets, apparently to bring to fruition the noble goal of “increasing home ownership”. This has all but been disregarded, “greed” being blamed instead. Mortgage bailouts and nationalization of losses are merely examples of the government allowing entities to avoid ownership of the consequences of their bad financial decisions—antithesis of a free society, since such public largesse has to be financed by expropriation of the results of good decisions taken by others.

In short, while a free society cannot exists without political freedom, a.k.a. democracy, economic freedom is, perhaps, even more important. The John Galts, and indeed Eddie Willers, of society should be allowed to use their physical and mental capital in any way as they deem fit, while at the same time, retaining the results of such deployment, whether good or bad.

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