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Freedom and the 21st Century


Perhaps the ultimate indictment of the government’s schools is that most people think year 2000 is the 2001st year and thus the start of a new century and millennium.

This is not mere quibbling. Next time someone owes you five bucks, insist that he start counting from zero, as people seem to want to do with years. Zero, one, two, three, four, five. Debt discharged.

We as a society are in a unique situation: we can’t agree if we are in the 20th or 21st century. The majority say it’s a new century, but a significant minority say otherwise. We haven’t faced this before. In 1900, hardly anyone believed he was living in the 20th century. The New York Times front page on January 1, 1900, said nothing about a new century. That was before the New Math.

This sort of fundamental disagreement could have serious implications. For example, if someone discovers a cure for cancer in the next 12 months, will that be, hands down, the top event of the 20th century? Or just the first achievement of the century to come?

If we can’t get the century right, what can we get right? Apparently very little.

Take democracy, for example, something else the schools are very bad at teaching the truth about. Led by President Clinton, most people think it’s synonymous with freedom.

But democracy has no necessary relationship to freedom. Democracy means that the people vote for political leaders or, sometimes, directly on political questions. Imagine a referendum on the following question: All adults under 5 feet tall are to be held in servitude for the rest of their lives. Everyone gets to vote-even the short people. That’s democracy. Is it freedom?

True, in most democracies those sorts of questions aren’t put to a vote. But in democracies, elected representatives have voted for conscription and sent young men to war. What’s that got to do with freedom?

In democracies, elected representatives impose taxation, regulation, and censorship. What’s that got to do with freedom?

Democracy may be a better method than violence and heredity for filling government leadership posts, but let’s not confuse it with freedom. India is a democracy. But the people don’t have the freedom to start businesses and make other economic decisions without the permission of a vast, self-serving bureaucracy. India is wretchedly poor. In contrast, until recently Hong Kong was a British colony with no democratic institutions. Yet the people were free to make good lives for themselves. Hong Kong is very rich. The democratic United States is situated somewhere between India and the old Hong Kong when it comes to economic matters.

What emerges from these considerations is that while democracy and freedom are not synonymous, private property and freedom are . Private property is the concrete manifestation of freedom. Where property is recognized and protected, there freedom dwells.

Being “free” to vote for leaders cannot be construed as real freedom if those leaders can do whatever they want to us. Who rules is less important than what are the rules. In America today, the government defines its own powers, the U.S. Constitution having long ceased to function as a limit on its powers. Yet our rulers have a stake in defining democracy as freedom. If we believe that, it won’t occur to us that they continually usurp our liberty.

The scam is up the moment we realize that private property, not democracy, is the essence of freedom. Private property provides the rules that limit government, as well as private action with respect to our fellow citizens. If government is obliged to respect property, it is precluded from being an oppressive Leviathan that treats us as serfs. The freedom that property constitutes outweighs the puny “freedom” of the vote. That truth is made even more clear when we realize how little one vote counts. (The chances of determining the outcome of an election are smaller than those of being hit by lightning on the way to the polls.)

Let’s hope the new millennium is indeed the millennium of freedom. Will a year be enough time for us to learn what freedom really is?

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.