Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), a distinguished Hungarian chemist who immigrated to England in the 1930s and devoted his mature years to philosophical inquiry, was one of the premier thinkers of the 20th century. His Personal Knowledge remains an epistemological classic, especially appealing to philosophical scientists such as John Polkinghorne. Similarly significant is his The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, c. 1951), an eloquent defense of both personal and political freedom as necessary for reason and social well-being. Appalled by the claims of reductionistic materialists—for whom thought is nothing more than mechanical or chemical reactions in brain—he proposed, in a series of essays, to demonstrate that the necessity of the freedom requisite in scientific inquiries is equally needed in other realms.
Unfortunately, the advance of science during the past two centuries was too frequently accompanied by a philosophical Positivism that “believed implicitly in the mechanical explanation of all phenomena” (p. 11) and denied any non-empirically demonstrable truths. Thus virtues such as courage and wisdom and standards regarding beauty and goodness were considered purely subjective preferences or social conventions. Rightly understood, however: “Science or scholarship can never be more than an affirmation of the things we believe in. These beliefs will, by their very nature, be of a normative character, claiming universal validity; they must also be responsible beliefs, held in due consideration of evidence and of the fallibility of all beliefs; but eventually they are ultimate commitments, issued under the seal of our personal judgment. To all further critical scruples we must at some point finally reply: “‘for I believe so’” (p. 31). Choosing what we believe to be true necessarily follows a process of the free inquiry best illustrated by the scientific community. One person seeks to solve a problem or explain a phenomenon and, having satisfied his own mind, informs others of his discovery. His thesis is then tested by qualified scholars and, if found true, accepted by them. A creative thinker like Einstein set forth novel ideas—but he needed the assent of his peers to establish the truth of his position. “This unity between personal creative passion and willingness to submit to tradition and discipline is a necessary consequence of the spiritual reality of science” (p. 40). Only free thinkers, working within a free society, can effectively advance science, as its still-birth or demise in totalitarian societies clearly reveals.
The same is true in economics, wherein it is clear that “the central planning of production” so celebrated in socialist circles “is strictly impossible” (p. 111). This was evident when Soviet planners tried to collectivize Russian agriculture, dictating “the scope and the kind of cultivation to be practiced on every one of the twenty-five millions of peasant farms’” (p. 131). Disastrous consequences followed—famines, rebellions, and the slaughter of recalcitrant Ukrainian kulaks. “Lenin’s attempt to replace the functions of the market by a centrally directed economic system caused far greater devastation than he worst forms of laissez faire ever did” (p. 169). There is in fact a “spontaneous order based on persuasion” basic to both scientific and economic development; any effort to dictate truths or policies cannot but fail in markedly destructive ways. Setting forth sophisticated mathematical reasons, especially emphasizing the importance of “polycentricity” profoundly evident in the “postural reflexes which keep us in equilibrium while sitting, standing or walking”, Polanyi shows why multitudes of free persons making decisions are always better than bureaucrats dictating policies (p. 176.) This truth ultimately dawned on Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, who “declared that it would require a Universal Mind as conceived by Laplace to make a success of such as system” (p. 126).
Still more: Polanyi was distressed by two 20th century developments ultimately destructive to the good society—skepticism and utopianism, wherein “an utter disbelief in the spirit of man is coupled with extravagant moral demands” (p. 4). Europe was ravaged by nihilistic, revolutionary humanitarians because a deep-seated “skepticism had destroyed popular belief in the reality of justice and reason” (p. 5). Compassion became a political platform (“social justice”) rather than an individual virtue, and it “was turned into merciless hatred and the desire for brotherhood into deadly class-war” (p. 5). This was evident in super-planners like Friedrich Engels, who declared “that men ‘with full consciousness will fashion their own history’ and ‘leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom,’” thereby showing “the megalomania of a mind rendered unimaginative by abandoning all faith in God. When such men are eventually granted power to control the ultimate destinies of their fellow men, they reduce them to mere fodder for their unbridled enterprises” (p. 199).
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While better known for his classic anti-socialist manifesto, The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich A. Hayek’s magnum opus is doubtless The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, c. 1960), judged by Henry Hazlitt in a Newsweek review as “one of the great political works of our time . . . the twentieth century successor to John Stuart Mill’s essay, ‘On Liberty,’” While recognized and awarded a Nobel Prize as an economist, Hayek sought in The Constitution of Liberty to address “the pressing social questions of our time” and provide “a comprehensive restatement of the basic principles of a philosophy of freedom” (p. 3). Citing John Stuart Mill, he wrote with this conviction: “It is impossible to study history without becoming aware of ‘the lesson given to mankind by every age, and always disregarded—that speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interest of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears any influences save those it must itself obey’” (p. 113).
To provide a philosophical foundation for liberty is imperative, for “liberty is not merely one particular value but . . . the source and condition of most moral values” (p. 6). He wrote with the tragic awareness that for nearly a century people around the world had been embracing “western ideals at a time when the West had become unsure of itself and had largely lost faith in the traditions that have made it what it is. This was a time when the intellectuals of the West had to a great extent abandoned the very belief in freedom which, by enabling the West to make full use of those forces that are responsible for the growth of all civilization, had made its unprecedented quick growth possible” (p. 21).
In the first of the book’s three parts, Hayek asserts “the value of freedom.” Rightly defined, freedom is neither political nor metaphysical, neither the power to do things celebrated by political progressives nor the inner freedom of the will noted by theologians. It is, quite simply, the “independence of the arbitrary will of another” (p. 12). Individuals freely thinking and making decisions, freely cooperating with other individuals doing the same, enable civilization to develop and thrive. Every individual is fallible and limited, so no one has the knowledge and wisdom necessary to dictate policies, but thinking and acting together we accomplish what is best for mankind. “The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful means that human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from trying to do better” (p. 37). It was aptly summarized by Cato, who Cicero says believed “the Roman constitution was superior to that of other states because it ‘was based upon the genius, not of one man, but of many; it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men. For, said he, there never has lived a man possessed of so great a genius that nothing could escape him, nor could the combined powers of all men living at one time possibly make all the necessary provisions of the future without the aid of actual experience and the test of time’” (p. 57).
The liberty Cato celebrated and Hayek defends developed in 18th century England, rooted in “an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up and were but imperfectly understood” (p. 54). Unlike the utopianism evident in Rousseau and spawned by the French Revolution, culminating in various Sparta-style totalitarian democracies, British thinkers such as Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and William Paley took an empirical, historical approach, locating “‘the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion’” rather than “‘in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose’” (p. 56). The French approach, however, implementing Rousseau’s reliance on the “general will,” promoted “popular sovereignty and even declared “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” British (and American thinkers such as Madison) sought to limit the power of passing majorities. Thus, as Burke continually insisted, a respect for tradition safeguards freedom’s flourishing. Unfortunately, during the 20th century “the French tradition has everywhere progressively displaced the English” (p. 55). Even in 19th century England, as Benthamite Philosophical Radicals displaced the Whigs in shaping liberalism, the democratic (Fabian) socialism installed by Clement Atlee in 1940 gained ground.
In socialist systems individuals cede to the state the responsibility for many things (employment, education, health care, etc.), whereas in free societies they take responsibility for their actions. “Liberty and responsibility are inseparable” (p. 71). Basic to liberty is “finding a sphere of usefulness, an appropriate job”—perhaps “the hardest discipline that a free society imposes on us. It is, however, inseparable from freedom, since nobody can assure each man that his gifts will be properly used” (p. 80), and it is up to the individual person to discern and develop his talents. Nothing we do outweighs the importance of finding and following one’s vocation, playing a productive role in the world. Importantly: “In a free society a man’s talents do not ‘entitle’ him to any particular position” (p. 82). Nor does a free society insure him against failure or distress. “All that a free society has to offer is an opportunity of searching for a suitable position, with all the attendant risk and uncertainty which such a search for a market for one’s gifts must involve” (p. 82).
Taking responsibility for themselves, lovers of liberty resist any form of “equality” other than “equality before the law” (p. 85). We are, as human beings, remarkably different in physique, intelligence, aptitude, ambition, inheritance, etc. Endeavoring to eliminate such distinctions in the guise of establishing equality is to violate the natural order of things, for the “boundless variety of human nature—the wide range of differences in individual capacities and potentialities—is one of the most distinctive facts about the human species” (p. 86). Egalitarians committed to abolishing such differences inevitably propose leveling everyone, through governmental mandates, to a common plane by redistributing the wealth, regulating behaviors, subsidizing failures, providing for old age, and excusing assorted deviancies. “The modern tendency to gratify this passion is to disguise it in the respectable garment of social justice is developing into a serious threat to freedom” (p. 93), whereas a bona fide understanding of justice restricts it to the virtue of giving others what is due them. “It is,” Hayek says, “one of the great tragedies of our time that the masses have come to believe that they have reached their high standard of material welfare as a result of having pulled down the wealthy, and to fear that the preservation or emergence of such a class would deprive them of something they would otherwise get and which they regard as their due” (p. 130).
In part two of the book, “freedom and the law,” Hayek critiques all kinds of the coercion. “True coercion occurs when armed bands of conquerors make the subject people toil for them, when organized gangsters extort a levy for ‘protection,’ when the knower of an evil secret blackmails his victim, and, of course, when the state threatens to inflict punishment and employ physical force to make us obey its commands” (p. 137). Notably, there is a difference between commands and laws! Whereas commands negate personal freedom, good laws preserve and enable it to thrive. Commands (whether issued by Czars in Russia or the White House) privilege cronies and impair adversaries; laws (enforced by judges) insure the even-handed enforcement of policies and adjudication of disputes. In his Second Treatise on Government John Locke said: “The end of the law is, not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be where there is no law: and is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists.” Embracing Locke’s understanding, Hayek says: “The conception of freedom under the law that is the chief concern of this book rests on the contention that when we obey laws, in the sense of general abstract rules laid down irrespective of their application to us, we are not subject to another man’s will and are therefore free. It is because the lawgiver does not know the particular cases to which his rules will apply, and it is because the judge who applies them has no choice in drawing the conclusions that follow from the existing body of rules and the particular facts of the case, that it can be said that laws and not men rule” (p. 153).
Lex, Rex! Law is King! Locke and other English (Whig) thinkers insisted that the rule of law liberates individuals. Still more: a written constitution and the separation of powers guarantees their freedom. Both distinguished the United States of America at its inception. In his History of Freedom Lord Acton noted: “Europe seemed incapable of becoming the home of free States. It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the acts of State . . . burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man.” Unlike the English, the Revolutionary colonists acknowledged that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights” and inscribed their convictions on paper. Thus no one (presidents and judges and passing congressional majorities included) can arbitrarily force free Americans to submit to governmental mandates. No one reading America’s founding documents can avoid concluding that limiting governmental power was their objective. “Thus the great discovery was made of which Lord Acton later said: ‘Of all checks on democracy, federalism has been the most efficacious and the most congenial. . . . The Federal system limits and restrains sovereign power by dividing it, and by assigning to Government only certain defined rights. It is the only method of curbing not only the majority but the power of the whole people, and it affords the strongest basis for a second chamber, which has been found essential security for freedom in every genuine democracy’” (p. 184). The Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution accentuated this commitment.
These Amendments were blatantly ignored by the progressive architects of the Fair Deal, New Freedom, New Deal, and Great Society in the 20th century. In 1933, an “extraordinary” man, FDR—equipped with an “attractive voice and limited mind”—believed he knew what the country needed. He “conceived it as the function of democracy in times of crisis to give unlimited powers to the man it trusted, even if this meant that it thereby ‘forged new instruments of power which in some hands would be dangerous’” (p. 190). Constitutional principles were cast aside in order to “get the country moving.” The “liberalism” of the Founding Fathers, which called for limited government, became the coercive democratic “Liberalism” of the Democrat Party. Largely lost in that process was the liberty won in the American Revolution. Thus 20th century America slowly moved in the direction of European Continent, where “absolute” governments in France and Prussia had “destroyed the traditions of liberty” (p. 193) in favor of an administratively imposed socialistic “equality.”
This process has been facilitated by intellectual developments designed to “discredit the rule of law” and support “a revival of arbitrary government” (p. 233). Arguing the importance of “social” or “distributive” justice, posing as defenders of the “poor” and “disadvantaged,” progressives scoffed (in the words of Anatole France) “at ‘the majestic equality of the law that forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread’” (p. 235). Influential jurists, especially in post-WWI Germany, crafted a “legal positivism” that supplanted the Natural Law (dismissed as a “metaphysical superstition”) and attributed individual rights to government rather than God. The government can, for instance, either grant or withdraw the “right to life” from selected groups such as the unborn or disabled or unproductive. The government can either guarantee or abolish property rights. Bolsheviks, Fascists, and Nazis all embraced and implemented this “legal positivism.” Less brutally, socialists in England and progressives in America promulgated the same philosophy, replacing the rule of law with majority rule. Thus Dean Roscoe Pound, one of America’s finest legal scholars, noted the “paternalistic policies of the New Deal” and declared: “‘Even if quite unintended, the majority are moving in the line of administrative absolutism which is a phase of the rising absolutism throughout the world’” (p. 247).
Such absolutism cannot but characterize welfare states, leading Hayek to title part three of the book “Freedom in the Welfare State.” Without question social reformers, throughout the West since 1848, have promoted various versions of socialism which, for a century or so generally “meant common ownership of the means of production and their ‘employment for use, not for profit’” (p. 254). Discredited by disillusioning developments in Russia and Germany, however, reformers committed to “social justice” rephrased and redirected their agenda to establishing a “welfare state” that redistributes income. Personal liberties must be restricted in order to promote the general welfare, and government must use “its coercive powers to insure that men are given what some expert thinks they need,” providing for their “health, employment, housing, and provision for old age” (p. 261). Especially by monopolizing social security and medical care—highly effective means of income redistribution—welfare states become dictatorial.
Redistribution through taxation (e.g. the graduated income tax proposed by Marx and Engels in 1848) further typifies welfare states and is “universally accepted as just” (p. 306). Earlier thinkers, such as J.R. McCulloch had warned: “‘The moment you abandon the cardinal principle of exacting from all individuals the same proportion of their income or of their property, you are at sea without rudder or compass, there is no amount of injustice and folly you may not commit’” (p. 308). But zealous reformers saw it is a singularly effective means to achieve their vaunted “equality” and by the dawn of the 20th century most nations had sanctioned it. Though allegedly a way to make the wealthy bear their “fair share,” in fact it makes the “masses . . . accept a much heavier load than they would have done otherwise” (p. 311). It effectively increases the power of the state, which is the real goal of socialists of all stripes.
Inevitably these welfare state policies and monopolies prove inefficient and ease the slide toward bankruptcy, but that never deters the utopians promoting them. Unfortunately, as Justice Lewis Brandeis warned, writing in Olmstead v. United States in 1927: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.” To understand Brandeis’ concern and to fully appreciate the importance of liberty as both a crucial ingredient of human nature and an ultimate good for human society, no better treatise exists than The Constitution of Liberty.