We are living at a time when civil liberties are severely under attack from a number of directions. Two of the most obvious ones at the moment are the response by many governments to the coronavirus crisis and the rise of “critical race theory,” with its accompanying “cancel culture.”
We are seeing imposed or threatened suppression of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom of movement. Historically, all of these were hard-won freedoms over the last 300 years. We need to recall that for most of human history, such freedoms did not exist.
Civil liberties born and abridged in the ancient world
Ancient Athens is often credited with being the Western cradle of democracy, including freedom of speech and conscience. But it was in ancient Athens that Socrates was made to drink Hemlock for “corrupting” the minds of the young in that city-state by asking them to question the established order and its traditions. He did not call for an overthrow of things. He merely asked his students to reflect upon the reasons and rationales for the institutional order, with its customs and traditions, to understand why they exist and whether they were all justified in terms of the betterment of the society.
Stirring up the young in this way was too much for the older free citizens of Athens, who held a trial and democratically voted to condemn Socrates to death if he would not stop teaching in this way. Socrates’s response was that he could not stop asking the “why” questions, since it was an inseparable part of his nature and mind. So rather than be untrue to himself, he drank the poison.
For most of human history, freedom of religion has been rarely or only narrowly allowed. The ancient Romans were fairly tolerant in respecting and recognizing “alien” gods worshiped among the many peoples they conquered in their vast empire. But when a radical sect emerged calling themselves “Christians,” who would not bow before a Caesar, the Romans attempted to repress these spiritual “revolutionaries,” including condemning them to death in the arena by facing gladiators or lions.
Out of religious intolerance grew freedom of conscience
When these Christians finally triumphed over Caesar, Christianity, in turn, also became, through the power of the state, intolerant of dissent and opposition. The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants tore parts of Europe apart, leading to multitudes of cruel deaths and massive destruction to villages, towns, and cities across the continent. The ordinary subject’s faith was often dictated and imposed by the ruling monarch.
But out of this, slowly but surely, came the reconciliating idea that if men were not to end up destroying mankind in the name of coercing others into eternal salvation, a freedom of conscience in choosing the path to that salvation needed to be left up to the individual. It took all of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries to more or less fully bring this to a reality in Western civilization, and from there, it spread to other parts of the world.
But if people are to be allowed a wide latitude to follow their conscience concerning the spiritual path to God, why could men not speak more freely and write about what was on their minds concerning their own lives and the societies in which they lived and worked? Why could they not express their voice about those who ruled over them and what the role of government should be in society? Why could they not freely associate and interact with others as they wished as they pursued ends and goals outside of the strength and ability of one man alone?
The triumph of civil liberty followed by totalitarian oppression
Only in the 19th century and then into the 20th century did the idea of such civil liberties as captured in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States come to be more widely recognized as the ideal around which a free society should be judged in successfully restraining those in political authority. The great difference said to distinguish the free, democratic society from the totalitarian society (whether in its fascist or communist variation) was a respect for such civil liberties as freedom of speech, the press, religion, assembly, association, and unmolested criticism of government policy, along with the ability to participate in the election of those holding public office.
For instance, the American journalist William Henry Chamberlin (1897–1969) reported for many years in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, and he also traveled extensively in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In Collectivism: A False Utopia (1937), he explained the world before the First World War, when such civil liberties were taken for granted, and the world after that war:
Before the World War it would have seemed banal and superfluous to make out a case for human liberty, so far as North America and the greater part of Europe was concerned. Such things as regular elections, freedom of press and speech, security against arbitrary arrest, torture, and execution, were taken for granted in almost all leading countries.
People could travel freely in foreign lands without worrying overmuch about passports and were not liable to be arrested by the police of one insolvent country if they failed to declare a few bills of the currency of its equally insolvent neighbor. Concentration camps for political recalcitrants and the wholesale conscription of forced labor as a means of getting public works done were unknown. (p. 1)
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, attempting to control a person’s thoughts and words and the deeds connected with them was considered the essence of tyranny, dictatorship, and despotism. But how were such civil liberties to be institutionally secured and safeguarded? It was argued that that was the purpose of a written constitution that specified and delineated what areas of human life government, with its power of legitimized force, was not allowed to encroach upon.
Written constitutions worthless when government owns and controls
And, yet, in spite of written constitutions and public pronouncements by those inside and outside of government, people’s civil liberties have been violated or denied. In the 1930s, Comrade Stalin introduced a new constitution in the Soviet Union that promised and insisted that the same civil liberties hailed in the West were respected and present in the new socialist society being built on Marxist-Leninist foundations. And, indeed, a reading of that constitution easily gives the impression that all the civil freedoms taken for granted in the United States or Great Britain at that time were practiced in the communist paradise as well.
But anyone paying attention to how the Soviet system operated knew full well that such civil liberties did not exist, or were present in only sham forms that tried to hide the fact that the thoughts in people’s minds were subject to government indoctrination, that their spoken and written words were manipulated to conform to and strictly reflect what the Soviet regime wanted people to read, say, and, therefore, believe. All peaceful assemblies and all human associations were determined by and confined to what the Soviet “party line” wanted as public expressions of people’s actions and interactions.
In Collectivism: A False Utopia, William Henry Chamberlin also explained how the totalitarian regimes went about controlling people’s ideas, words, and actions:
The communist-fascist technique of remaining in power … is based first of all on a recognition of the tremendous possibilities of state-monopolized propaganda in an age when most people go to school, read newspapers, listen to radio broadcasts, and attend the movies. Censors and book burners can do a good deal; but … printing presses are not smashed; they are all utilized to spread far and wide the same brand of political, economic, and social doctrine.
People are not forbidden to possess radio sets or to go to the movies. But nothing goes on the air in the Soviet Union, [Nazi] Germany, or [fascist] Italy that could possibly offend, respectively, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. The Russians can go to a film and see Communists heroically toiling for their country’s upbuilding and finally prevailing over the dark intrigues of fascist villains. The German may be simultaneously witnessing a film of precisely the same ideological content, but with the roles of hero and villain reversed. The school and the press are also exploited to the limit as means of teaching people, from the cradle to the grave, to think and behave in the way which the ruling system demands. (pp. 32–33)
No civil liberties when government dictates the use of property
What enabled these governments to succeed to an amazing extent in suppressing the array of civil liberties in their countries was the political authority’s direct ownership (in the Soviet Union) or strict control (in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy) over the means of production, through which thought, word, and deed are expressed. In the Soviet Union, there were no private newspapers or book publishers or radio stations, no independent movie-making companies or theaters for the performing arts, no markets on which people could offer to buy and sell separate from what the government dictated and centrally planned.
The same was the case in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, in that any means of communication or the arts not also directly owned by these governments were under their strict control, with any nominal “private” owners, producers, and suppliers told by the Nazi and fascist authorities what they were to produce, when, how, at what price, and with what content. As German economist Guenter Reimann (1904–2005), summarized it in The Vampire Economy: Doing Business Under Fascism (1939):
The authoritarian State has made it a principle that private property is no longer sacred…. Nazi doctrine … is offered as a new justification for the State’s use of private capital and it is a means of placing drastic limitations upon private property rights in the “national interest”…. The capitalist under fascism has to be not merely a law-abiding citizen, he must be servile to the representatives of the State. He must not insist on ‘rights’ and must not behave as if his property rights were still sacred. He should be grateful to the Fuhrer that he still has private property. (pp. 12–13, 20)
Once private property rights were either abolished or strictly controlled and commanded by the government, as under these totalitarian regimes, people’s free actions and civil liberties were basically made null and void. This is what far too many people do not clearly and fully understand. What institutionally secures, in the long run, civil liberties in any society are private property rights and economic freedom.
Property rights and economic freedom essential for civil liberties
Economic freedom and the private property rights upon which it is based create an area of independence and autonomy from those in political power. That 1930s Soviet constitution stated that all citizens of the socialist paradise had a “guaranteed” freedom of religion. But how were people to express their religious faith in association with others when the government owned all the land, had monopoly possession of all building materials and construction equipment as well as all printing presses and paper? If the government refuses to allocate land for the site of a church, will not provide the resources and the building equipment to construct a house of worship, and declines a request for the publishing of Bibles and hymnals because the central planners decide that other “social” ends and purposes have higher priority, then those sharing a common faith, wishing to worship together, find themselves nominally “free” to worship as a civil right, but with no material means to manifest their shared belief.
Freedom of religion becomes a sham, as does all freedom of speech and the press. For instance, back in the 1980s, after the socialist Sandinistas had gained political power in Nicaragua, they assured everyone that there was an absolute right to freedom of the press and peaceful political dissent in the country. A leading opposition newspaper, La Prensa, found it impossible, however, to widely express their dissenting views to the Nicaraguan reading public due to the fact that the Sandinista government limited the amount of newspaper material and ink they allocated to the newspaper, so the paper’s circulation was limited to a mere fraction of what it had been before the Sandinistas took control.
Property and markets protect people from government abuse
During the anti-communism scare in the early 1950s, the U.S. government pressured a number of Hollywood studios to blacklist some well-known actors and screen writers who were accused of communist or pro-communist ties. It has remained a cause celebre in a variety of intellectual and entertainment circles as an example of innocent people being persecuted in America merely for their political views.
But as free-market economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006) argued more than once starting in the 1950s and 1960s, due to the fact that there was a vibrant and independent private sector in the U.S. economy, those hounded out of their Hollywood careers could and did find alternative employments and ways to earn a living with private enterprises not controlled or pressured in the same way by the government. Some of them, after things calmed down after a time, could still work at screen writing either under their own or assumed names.
In the Soviet Union, for which, in fact, some of these people did express active sympathy at an earlier time, dissidents and those accused of being “enemies of the people” suffered true unemployment and starvation, since under Soviet socialism there were no other employers outside of the state from whom the outcast might have found a job. Or such a critic — real or imagined — would have been given “employment” by the government in the slave labor camps of the Gulag, from which many millions never returned.
Property and markets provide anonymity from intolerance
Recognized and secure private property rights in a relatively open and competitive free market provide “islands” of economic and social autonomy and independence from the government and those in political power. This is reinforced by the fact that in the marketplace, people rarely pay attention to or care about the political, social, economic, or religious views of those with whom they do business.
When you do your food shopping at a supermarket, do you base your purchases of vegetables or canned goods or dairy products on the political views of those who have supplied the commodities you end up placing in the cart? How could you even know the political or religious views of the dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of people who have directly or indirectly participated in the various supply chains that have assisted in bringing those desired goods to you, wherever you may be in the country or around the world?
Our beliefs are private and only open to voluntary market choices
We earn our livings in the free marketplace using our respective properties in the exchange processes of supply and demand, even when the only “property” we own and use to earn that living is our personal labor abilities as the means to buy what others have for sale that we desire. Our purchases partly reflect our political, social, and economic views through the books we buy, the music we listen to, and the organizations we involve ourselves with and to which we may donate. All of this is in the realm of the protected private world of property and exchange.
Sometimes people have refused to interact or associate with others due to disagreements over politics or religion, but these are voluntary and personal acts that do not and cannot, per se, force or compel others to boycott certain market suppliers who are considered ethically unacceptable. We may attempt to persuade others to follow our lead through a peaceful and voluntary withholding of business to get those viewed as personally or socially unethical or immoral to change their ways, but the power of the state cannot be brought down on them.
Government’s COVID abridgement of property and civil liberty
We, however, do not live in a free market with secure and respected property rights and civil liberties in modern day America. This has been most clearly shown over the last two years with the government’s response to the coronavirus. There is no doubt that this virus has had lethal effects on multitudes of people, especially the sick or hospitalized. But it shows just how far we have moved away from guaranteed property rights and therefore secure civil liberties by the government’s heavy-handed abridgement of voluntary association and freedom of choice.
The federal and the state governments, especially the latter, told people to stop producing, do not go to work, stay at home, only shop for government-determined “essential” products and only in particular stores at certain times. Stay six feet or more away from others and wear a facial mask. And more recently, the Biden administration is using the power of government spending to compel private establishments that get some portion of their revenues from the government to force all their employees to be vaccinated or lose that government funding.
The only means by which the government has been able to do such things is to de facto declare that it may abridge people’s property rights and freedoms of association when and how it wants. You could not walk your dog beyond a certain parameter around your residence. You could not congregate in groups more than a certain size, including attending church in a house of worship.
Google and Facebook may be private companies, with their corporate owners certainly having their own ideological and political views and agendas. Behind much of their suppression of anti-vaccination viewpoints or challenges of the presumptions behind policy pronouncements by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, are concerns and fears that if they do not do so, the Congress and the White House may have to seriously consider placing their businesses and their social media outlets under more direct and heavy-handed regulatory control and command.
Critical race theory and free speech in government schools
In the public schools, a fight is now on about whether or not critical race theory (CRT) should be taught. I consider CRT to be a serious distortion of American history, and I question the presumption that “systemic racism” dominates American culture and society. But what has made this an ideological “life and death” struggle between proponents and opponents of CRT has to do with the compulsory and near-monopoly status of schooling and education in the United States.
Either the “pros” or the “cons” get to determine what gets taught in government schools about the history and current status of race relations in America. The side that loses will, no doubt, insist that their group’s civil liberties are being violated by denying them freedom of speech and expression because the winning side gets to dictate the curriculum for all the students in that school district or state.
If schooling and what and how subjects are taught in the classrooms were fully shifted to the private sector, that is, the complete privatization of schooling and education, the entire issue would be greatly diffused. Each individual and group of individuals with their own views and values on race history and race relations in America would send their children to the school of their private and voluntary choice.
Privatizing schools solves the civil liberties problem
Nobody’s civil liberties concerning freedom of speech or the press or association would be threatened or abridged. By depoliticizing schooling and education, not only would no parent or child feel that their freedom of thought or word or belief had been abridged, it would immediately defuse the ideological and political anger and pressures that have been intensifying around the country.
Arguing over whose interpretation of American history and current American social relationships is correct would be moved to the arena of much calmer and polite and courteous discourse, precisely because it was understood that no one could use the power of the state to impose their views and values on others. If you think you are right, the available avenue to change people’s minds and actions becomes peaceful persuasion, not political power.
Civil liberties are essential for an open and free society, making us respectful and tolerant of others and the ideas they hold. It is the means by which we replace force and its threat with reason, argument, and mutual respect if we want to influence others in society.
But the bedrock upon which civil liberties are institutionally secure and guarded is private property and the free market of voluntary exchange. Without it, society always risks becoming an arena of intolerance, dogmatism, and coercion. When this latter path is followed, tyranny and oppression are the inevitable ends of the line.
(Based on a talk, Civil Liberties and Economic Freedom, given for the Future of Freedom Foundation online conference, “Restoring Our Civil Liberties,” October 12, 2021.)
This article was published in the December 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.