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Contest Essay

Freedom, Peace, Commerce & Education


     
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Third Prize ($1,000)

“The progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace and the spread of commerce and the diffusion of education than upon the labour of Cabinets or Foreign Offices.”
—Richard Cobden

Several hundred years ago Hobbes painted a not-so-flattering picture of Man. He concluded that self-interest motivated all of our actions. Some of us bicker with him in this regard. We disagree, however, on the grounds of degree, not of principle and behind our contention human vanity lies hidden. We must confess: we prefer to think of ourselves in more idealistic terms.

Self-interest is there, nevertheless, and once we admit it, we start to understand why Cobden’s suggestion regarding the inefficiency of government rings true. The progress of freedom is the progress of individual freedom.1 Keeping human nature in mind, can a government be rationally expected to conscientiously promote the freedom of all? By the social contract, governments have been entrusted with the duty to act in the interest of a whole people. Nevertheless, any political authority is in the end made up of single individuals whose ultimate loyalty is to themselves. Thus, the danger that any such group will use its power to further the self-interest of its members or of the whole group is ever-present. Thomas Jefferson called this risk to attention more than two hundred years ago saying,

“Whereas it appareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights […] experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

As if from the same words, Samuel Adams drew the wise conclusion also more than two hundred years ago, “It is prudent for the People to keep a watchful Eye over the Conduct of all those who are entrusted with Publick Affairs. Such Attention is the Peoples’ great Security.”2

The obstacle to the efficiency of Cabinets and Foreign Offices is not only self-interest, but also the diversity of human beings in terms of perception. All of us can affirm from experience that there are as many individuals unique in their value systems, interests, and conceptions of life as there are stars on the sky. In such an instance, for a government to be entrusted with the task to promote freedom for all, presupposes an agreement with the citizenry on the meaning of freedom and on the process through which it should be promoted. To reach such an agreement is difficult in the best of situations, but more often impossible. For one, gathering all the citizens of a country together and having everyone’s voice heard is physically unattainable. Secondly, considering the multiplicity of self-interests that spring from different value systems renders an outcome that is satisfactory for the individual to be unlikely. As any agreement is, by default, a compromise between the consulting parts, every individual partaking in the process has to give up part of his self-interest and freedom. Due to the large number of people and the diversity of their aspirations, the upshot of the decision-making process would represent a vague design of the direction and procedure of action. By comparison, it would seem to the individual that he made a faulty cost-benefit calculation. Additionally, he would feel bound by this common agreement, which happens to be more different than similar to his own self-interest and view on freedom. It appears, thus, that due to the divergence of self-interests satisfactory government is beyond reach exactly because satisfactory agreement remains unattainable.

Conclusively, the self-interest and diversity inherent in human nature will render any centrally promoted project of freedom substandard in the eyes of the individual. The likely result of such undertaking is suggested by the previous words of Thomas Jefferson: tyranny, i.e. oppressive power exerted by the government. The political authority will come to impute its conception of freedom and how it can be maximized to the population because it needs formula on which it can act. It is highly likely that the government’s views will not be in concordance with that of at least a number of individuals. As they will have to abide by a concept of freedom they do not agree with, in the view of these individuals the government will act in violation of their individual freedom.

Thus, only one potential proponent remains for the progress of freedom, i.e. the individual. Moreover, the same principle that rendered a group of people inadequate will render the single person the perfect promoter of liberty. Human self-interest is a death-sure bet. It is certain, namely, that the individual will promote, at least, his own freedom because he increasingly wants to be able to act in his own self-interest.

Nobel prize laureate Friedrich von Hayek defined liberty as the absence of coercion, that is the freedom to do what one wants within the limits of society, meaning as long as one does not impinge upon the freedom of others. This definition represents the negative aspect of freedom because it does not guarantee a result, that is that the ‘freedom from’ will be actively used to create something. It is an insufficient guarantee that individual freedom will be indeed maintained for it can still remain unused. Liberty in order to progress needs to be actively exercised and promoted by the individual himself. The necessity of this action implies personal ability. This point being made, a bit of patience will be requested before the explanation of this aspect of freedom.

By the social contract, it is the government who acts as the guarantor of negative freedom. Let us reiterate Locke’s thoughts on this issue. The main problem Locke saw with people living in the State of Nature was that the judiciary and executive power were in the hands of the individual. If any person transgressed the Law of Nature by injuring the life, health, liberty, or possessions of someone, the wronged person had the right by the same law to punish the transgressor to such degree, as he believed would prevent another illegal act. Locke objected to this power of one individual over another as he considered it unreasonable for people to be judges in their own cases. Thinking of human nature, he contended that love for the self will make men partial to themselves and they will be carried away in punishing others.3

In the State of Nature, threat to the security of life and property of the individual was looming around every corner. In order to get rid of this inconvenience, men by their express consent have given up their perfect freedom and allowed the government to be an impartial adjudicator, so that their life, property and remaining freedom are secured and protected by a political authority, i.e. so that they are free from the coercion of others, the government included. Conclusively, by the social contract, the primary role of the government is to secure negative freedom.

It has been stated previously that the government cannot be fully entrusted with this task. In order to be secure, freedom needs to be in the hands of the individual and has to be advanced through his own efforts. This fact suggests that there is an active and positive aspect to liberty: the ability to do. More specifically, positive freedom refers to the ability of the individual to provide for himself and fashion his life as he wishes provided he respects the boundaries set by social life. By deduction then, freedom progresses as more and more people and to an ever-increasing degree provide for themselves and fashion their lives according to their interest.

Man is destined to live in a material world and therefore, he can provide for himself only if he has private property. If this is not the case and a central authority provides for a person, then he does not enjoy the real liberty to fashion his life as he wishes since he is dependent on the goodwill of the government and his fellows. It is by this reasoning that Hayek’s words become a truism. “Private property is the most important guarantee of freedom.”4

According to the Lockean view, Man has private property in his body and his labor. This means on the one hand, that he can decide what to do with his property, meaning keep it, sell it, grant it or destroy it. On the other hand, he can forbid anyone else to make use of his property in any way. It is private property that de facto confirms the freedom of the individual for it recognizes the individual’s separateness from the rest of humanity by establishing his autonomy in the material world. To take the idea further, it is free trade that respects private property rights to the fullest and this fact provides economic incentive to the people. As free trade puts the least limitations on the use of private property, it maximizes human productive capabilities and results in the increased creation of wealth, i.e. more individuals and more states that are affluent. According to Adam Smith, this growth in wealth leads to even more economic prosperity, as there is more to be gained by trading with wealthy states than with impoverished ones. Considering the above, free trade stands for the most effective way in which the individual can provide for himself in the material world because of the positive freedom he enjoys in his private property rights. As continuing growth of affluence is nearly assured, there is also an ever-increasing burgeoning of prospects to provide for oneself. Thus, free trade leads to the progress of freedom in the sense that it allows the individual the economic freedom to take care of himself.

Furthermore, this economic freedom emancipates the individual from economic control and thus, free trade also assures political freedom. Milton Friedman explains,

“By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates this source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement.”5

This separation between economic and political power is indispensable for the maintenance and advance of positive freedom. It was Hayek who sketched out the rationale behind this idea. He was convinced that economic control was not merely a control of a sector of human life that could be separated from the rest, but “a control of the means to all our ends.”6 As a result, then whoever had control over the means also determined the ends to be served, which values to be rated higher and which lower, or in short, the beliefs and values men should pursue.7 The conclusion to be drawn here is evident. As free trade gives the economic control in the hands of the individual and not the state, the single person will define the ends, the values, and beliefs he will want to follow. Free trade grants him personal autonomy on the basis of his private property. The state is thereby, deprived of his power over the individual. Or, to turn the argument around, the individual is empowered over and against the state. His autonomy is an economic tool to check political power and his emancipation becomes an effective instrument of his ability to implement, guard, and advance economic and political freedom.

Free trade seems to be salvation when it comes to liberty and while its sine qua non is private property, its functioning can be obstructed by the lack of peace.8 In war both the life and property of Man are under threat and therefore, freedom will also become a chimera as survival becomes the paramount priority of the individual to which every other interest must and will be subjected.

History seems to suggest, however, that free trade and peace are more or less mutually reinforcing each other. While the lack of peace can disrupt free trade, the lack of free trade can lead to war. By implication, thus, peace contributes to the functioning of the free market and free market contributes to peace; the mutual existence of the two allows for the progress of freedom. Let’s take a moment to explain.

It was claimed that free trade strengthened peace. The historical argument one could bring is the post-World War I period in Europe. During the Great War, Europe borrowed heavily from US banks and by the end of the conflict it was heavily indebted. Its ability to pay off its debt required a positive trade balance, i.e. more exports than imports. European countries could rely on exporting to each other, as every country was economically devastated. The best and fastest way to repay debts would have been to trade with the US. According to the Smithinian logic, this would have been the most profitable because of the wealth of the country. The US, nevertheless, erected trade barriers and Europe continued to remain stuck. The situation worsened with the advent of the Great Depression, when countries around the world erected trade barriers to protect their markets. Free trade became extinct and this fact put a country on the offensive again. Not being able to assure economic prosperity to its citizens, made Germany to take the only remaining alternative to reconstruct its economy: military expansion. In the aftermath of the Second World War, US realized that without the institution of free trade a peaceful and prosperous Europe remained an illusion. It was for this reason, that the American politicians ardently supported the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community. The ECSC provided access for six signatory countries to a common market in the most important industrial raw materials. It was the first stone on the foundation of today’s European Union that has, indeed, brought a period of unexpected peace and prosperity to the member countries. With regard to the difference free market can make in terms of peace, the two World Wars are, thus, perfect examples. They depict, namely, the fact that in times of economic hardship while free trade can lead to the return of prosperity by peaceful means, trade barriers often aggravate economic crises and leave no choice to the population of a devastated country but to seek affluence through aggression.

Putting the historical argument aside, free trade also promotes peace and implicitly freedom as it brings people together into one economic network, thereby linking their fortunes. Free trade enables the highest possible level to which this network of commerce can expand. There are no trade regulations to limit it, namely. The actuality of this network has two important results.

On the one hand, the world being increasingly made up of customers and suppliers, the welfare of the people will depend on the welfare of others. As war disrupts trade, it will also hurt the interests of customers/suppliers at home. One only has to think of the increase in the price of oil during the Gulf war and how that injured business worldwide. Considering this detrimental effect of war, in democratic countries, where citizens have the ultimate decision-making power, war supported by the population is unlikely. Armed conflicts become too costly for the individual people in terms of loss trade, profit and possibly jobs. To put it in the terms of human nature, peace does not only assure the security of life and property, but through free trade peace also becomes the material interest of the people.

On the other hand, free market involves the possibility to expand interaction between the people of the world to the maximum. It builds geographically extensive communication channels. By way of interaction, men start to be acquainted with the cultural Other and this results in their mind in a psychological proximity. Trade becomes a socialization process whereby people start to understand the Other and learn to cooperate and compromise. Free trade allows this socialization to the highest degree as it is the network that, by its lack of limitation, can incorporate the largest number of people. As a result, this culture of interaction greatly contributes to peace, as people will be socialized to seek a peaceful solution above all.

Peace and free trade act as mutual reinforcements of each other. As such, they bring about the progress of freedom for they allow the individual to provide for himself according to his perceived self-interest, naturally within the bounds of society. It should be noted, however, that they represent factors external to the individual and in that, they suggest the existence of an internal factor that is indispensable to positive freedom: the individual’s inner ability to do. The development of the inner capabilities of Man brings education into the discussion by default.

Education as a training process is a means whereby the individual acquires a profession with the purpose of making use of his private property (body, mind, capital). It grants the individual economic independence by giving him the savvy to manage his own fortune. Thus, the individual has the knowledge necessary for him to be able to rely on his own powers.

Moreover, education is indispensable to the functioning of democracy. The main principle of the democracy is that sovereignty is derived from the people, meaning that the citizen is the ultimate decision maker. By implication, the proper functioning of this political system requires the political participation of the citizenry. However, participation in the decision making process is relevant and constructive only if the individual as a democratic citizen has the ability to discern and is capable to identify his self-interest, understands the decision making process well and is, therefore, able to represent, argue for and guard his interest in public. As previously shown, the government cannot be fully trusted to act in the interest of the individual and as democracy functions on a majority rule, a mass level of enlightenment has to be assured. Jefferson put it in plain words,

“it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this [tyranny] would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that […] they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”9

If free trade grants the individual economic emancipation, then education provides him with an intellectual release whereby he can scrutinize the actions of the government and avoid becoming a marionette of self-interested politicians. Adam Smith also warranted the importance of education,

“They [the educated people] are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government.”10

Thus, by offering discernment, education enables the individual together with his fellow citizens to force the government to be effective and to act in the interest of the people. Education is the last, but nevertheless, the most indispensable piece of the puzzle. As it refers to the internal ability of the person to act intelligently in his own interest, we must recognize that without it external factors helping the progress of freedom would not even exist. Negative freedom, free trade and enduring peace have emerged as a result of the workings of educated men who had the ability to recognize the benefit that these factors would bring to the individual. The progress of freedom demands action. As in Man’s world the starting point of every act is the human mind, its cultivation, i.e. education will have to be the foundation stone of any successful freedom project.

End Notes

For the sake of clarity, there is a call for the definition of ‘freedom’ here. As stated above, we conceive freedom to pertain ultimately to the single person and by this elusive term we mean nothing other than the opportunity of the individual to follow what he deems to be his own self-interest. It has to be noted that this is an absolute definition of liberty and that by the social contract, individuals have agreed to a restriction on their freedom so as to be able to have the benefit of private property and security.

1. Jefferson, Thomas, Papers, “Preamble to A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” 2:526-27. Monday, April 28, 2003.

2. Adams, Samuel, Writings, “Samuel Adams to Noah Webster.” 4:305-6. Monday, April 28, 2003.

3. Locke, John, Second Treatise on Government, 4-15. Monday, April 28, 2003. .

4. Friederich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, London and Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, p. 78.

5. Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago, US and London, UK: The University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 15.

6. Hayek, Friedrich, Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 214.

7. ibid.

8. The standard definition for peace is the lack of war, that is “the absence of lethal conflicts between armed and opposed social groups.” (Revilla, C. Claudio, “Origins and Evolution of War and Politics”, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1. (Mar., 1996), pp. 1-22, available at JSTOR.).

9. Jefferson, op.cit.

10. Smith, Adams, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, New York: The Modern Library, 1937, p. 740.


Zsuzsánna Magdó is a junior in political science and international relations at History American University in Bulgaria.






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