Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Morality requires liberty

A movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effect, however lofty the ideals to which it owes its birth.

Experience has made [liberal Germans] wiser and sadder men: they have learned that neither good intentions nor efficiency of organization can preserve decency in a system in which personal freedom and individual responsibility are destroyed.

These little passages, combined with the rest of the excellent 14th chapter of The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek, have changed my way of thinking of the relation between liberty and morality. I've never been able to resolve the conflict in my head between liberal thought and social conservatism, and there are still areas of conflict, but it's now clear to me that liberalism is the foundation for morality—without it, morality cannot exist.

I've recognized for a long time that collectivism (in all its incarnations--big government, welfare state, socialism, communism, fascism, etc.) is A Bad Thing, since it must use coercion to achieve arbitrary ends. Forcing individuals to pay for the healthcare, retirement, vocational training, and recreation of others is folly. Worse, as Hayek points out elsewhere, collectivism breeds arbitrary rule, making tyranny even more unbearable. In the U.S., we see unchecked government bodies creating rules and regulations that impact the lives of millions of Americans, without direct oversight from elected officials, and it's worse in most other countries.

I've also known, especially since reading Democracy in America, that collectivism kills personal responsibility, because it leads people to rely on government to solve problems and take care of them:

What good does it do me, after all, if an ever-watchful authority keeps an eye out to ensure that my pleasures will be tranquil and races ahead of me to ward off all danger, sparing me the need even to think about such things, if that authority, even as it removes the smallest thorns from my path, is also absolute master of my liberty and my life; if it monopolizes vitality and existence to such a degree that when it languishes, everything around it must also languish; when it sleeps, everything must also sleep; and when it dies, everything must also perish?

Indeed, Hayek agrees:

The virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now--independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one's conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one's neighbors--are essentially those on which the working of an individualist society rests.

But while I've known this, I never made the connection that Hayek makes in the quotes at the top of this post: that as collectivism kills individual freedom and responsibility, it simultaneously kills morality. How? Because morality requires a choice. It's not "moral" for me to pay the medical bills of a stranger if I'm forced to by an IRS agent with the power to put me in jail. It's only a good deed if I make a donation voluntarily. All government coercion is like that--it eliminates the morality of every decision that it touches. As Hayek says, "only when we ourselves are responsible for our own interests and are free to sacrifice them has our decision moral value."

Eliminating the morality in a decision isn't always a bad thing, however, because some people have no qualms about being immoral to the extent that they endanger civilization. Thus, it's essential to have a government capable of enforcing laws against theft and murder, for example. But when moral choices are increasingly replaced by coercion, the result is a society of robots, the polar opposite of the type of men God created us to be. "Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever," but without the power of moral choice, glorifying and enjoying God becomes impossible except in punishment and death at the hands of the state. I can't glorify God with my money if the government takes it all away from me. I can't glorify God with my talents if the government forces me into an occupation outside my skill set, through excessive regulation, price floors, or price ceilings. The overall effect of this government intervention may not be ultimately bad (though it almost certainly will be), but it is still antimoral, because it forbade me the chance to be moral with the gifts God gave me.

Thus, the fight for liberty is more than a rebellious teenager's fight for the freedom to do what he wants without authority telling him what to do. Without individual liberty, it is impossible to glorify God. That's why liberty must be defended.


Earl said...

Thank you.

Elle said...

Well said indeed! I find that it is a continuous task to un-indoctrinate myself from all the subtle forms of collectivism and seek the truth. Blessings