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Hornberger's Blog is a daily libertarian blog written by Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of FFF.
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Freedom by Permission Is Not Freedom


A statement by a Chinese woman in response to the Chinese government’s censorship of Google reveals the statist mindset perfectly, both in China and here in the United States. Here is what she said: “The government should give people the right to see what they want online.”

Do you see the problem with that woman’s mindset? She looks upon rights as grants from the government, things that can be given and taken away and, thus, controlled and regulated.

Consider the economic situation in China. Things are booming. Prosperity is soaring. The standard of living is skyrocketing. Lots of people are getting wealthy.

What’s the reason for all this economic vibrancy? The government has reduced the amount of controls it previously exercised on people’s economic activity. Less regulations. Lower taxes. Reduced import and export restrictions. More private ownership.

Does this mean that the Chinese people are now free, in the economic sense of that term? Of course not. After all, what the Chinese government gives, the Chinese government can take away.

The point is this: the Chinese government is permitting people to have greater economic “freedom.” But the operative word is “permitting.” When someone is permitting someone else to have “freedom,” then the person really isn’t free at all.

Assume, for example, that the owner of a slave in the Old South permitted his slave to live off the plantation and live his life the way he chose, but on the condition that the plantation owner could recall the slave to the plantation whenever he wanted. The slave moves away and for the next 10 years raises a family and owns and operates his own business.

Would the slave be free? Of course not. His “freedom” to live his life the way he chose wouldn’t be freedom at all. He would remain a slave, albeit one who would be permitted to live a less restrictive, less controlled life than before. His “freedom” could be revoked at any time.

What that Chinese woman misses — indeed, what American statists miss — is that rights are fundamental and inherent. They are endowed in people by God and nature. As such, they preexist government. Therefore, the notion that government can legitimately give and take away and control and regulate people’s rights is ludicrous on its face.

That begs the question: What rights are we talking about? There is one overarching, fundamental right that exist in all people, regardless of race, color, creed, nationality, or whatever: It is the right to live your life any way you choose, so long as your conduct is peaceful.

That encompasses, for example, the right to read whatever you want, without government restriction or control. That Chinese woman instinctively understands this but she goes astray in thinking that the government should “let” her exercise such a right.

Does it matter whether a government is an unelected dictatorship, such as in China, as compared to a representative democracy, such as here in the United States?

No. Since rights are fundamental and inherent and preexist government, even if 95 percent of people in a society, through their elected representatives, wish to control what people read, it would be an illegitimate act to do so. People have a right to read whatever they want, regardless of what everyone else thinks or what government officials, elected or not, think.

The principle is no different with respect to economic liberty. People have the fundamental right to sustain their life through labor. As part of that process, they have the right to enter into any occupation or profession without government permission, consent, control, or regulation. They have the right to enter into mutually beneficial exchanges with others, even those in totally different parts of the world. They have the right to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth in these endeavors. They have the right to decide what to do with their own money.

Alas, this is where American statists go as awry as that Chinese woman. They look upon economic liberty as a “right” that the government gives to people. Therefore, they see nothing wrong with government officials’ deciding who enters into professions and occupations, controlling and regulating economic activity, deciding the extent to which people will be permitted to keep their own income, and determining how people’s money will be spent.

Sometimes a government is nicer and permits people to engage in economic activity with less control and lower taxes. But let us never mistake that for freedom. Genuine freedom entails living one’s life any way he wants, so long as his conduct is peaceful, with government wielding the power to do nothing more than protecting the exercise of such freedom.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.