I shall identify my brand of economics as that of economic freedom, and I shall define economic freedom as that set of economic arrangements that would exist in a society in which the government’s only function would be to prevent one man from using force or fraud against another — including within this, of course, the task of national defense. So that there can be no misunderstanding here, let me say that this is pure, uncompromising laissez-faire economics. It is not the mixed economy; it is the unmixed economy….
You will note as I develop my case that I attach relatively little importance to the demonstrated efficiency of the free-market system in promoting economic growth, in raising levels of living. In fact, my central thesis is that the most important part of the case for economic freedom is not its vaunted efficiency as a system for organizing resources, not its dramatic success in promoting economic growth, but rather its consistency with certain fundamental moral principles of life itself.
I say, “the most important part of the case” for two reasons. First, the significance I attach to those moral principles would lead me to prefer the free-enterprise system even if it were demonstrably less efficient than alternative systems, even if it were to produce a slower rate of economic growth than systems of central direction and control. Second, the great mass of the people of any country is never really going to understand the purely economic workings of any economic system, be it free enterprise or socialism. Hence, most people are going to judge an economic system by its consistency with their moral principles rather than by its purely scientific operating characteristics. If economic freedom survives in the years ahead, it will be only because a majority of the people accept its basic morality. The success of the system in bringing ever higher levels of living will be no more persuasive in the future than it has been in the past….
To begin with, the central value in my choice system is individual freedom. By freedom I mean exactly and only freedom from coercion by others. I do not mean the four freedoms of President Roosevelt, which are not freedoms at all, but only rhetorical devices to persuade people to give up some of their true freedom. In the Rogge system, each man must be free to do what is his duty as he defines it, so long as he does not use force against another….
Economic freedom is a part of total freedom.
Major premise: Each man should be free to take whatever action he wishes, so long as he does not use force or fraud against another;
Minor premise: All economic behavior is “action” as identified above;
Conclusion: Each man should be free to take whatever action he wishes in his economic behavior, so long as he does not use force or fraud against another.
In other words, economic freedom is a part of total freedom; if freedom is an end in itself, as our society has traditionally asserted it to be, then economic freedom is an end in itself, to be valued for itself alone and not just for its instrumental value in serving other goals.
If this thesis be accepted, then there must always exist a tremendous presumption against each and every proposal for governmental limitation of economic freedom. What is wrong with a state system of compulsory social security? It denies to the individual his freedom, his right to choose what he will do with his own money resources. What is wrong with a governmentally enforced minimum wage? It denies to the employer and the employee their individual freedom, their individual rights to enter into any voluntary relationship not involving force or fraud. What is wrong with government-to-government foreign economic aid? It denies to the individual freedom to choose, as his conscience dictates, whether to send aid or not. What is wrong with a tariff or an import quota? It denies to the individual consumer his right to buy what he wishes, wherever he wishes.
It is breathtaking to think what this simple approach would do to the apparatus of state control at all levels of government. Strike from the books all legislation that denies economic freedom to any individual and three-fourths of all the activities now undertaken by government would be eliminated….
Every act of intervention in the economic life of its citizens gives to a government additional power to shape and control the attitudes, the writings, the behavior of those citizens. Every such act is another break in the dike protecting the integrity of the individual as a free man or woman.
The free market protects the integrity of the individual by providing him with a host of decentralized alternatives rather than with one centralized opportunity. Even the known communist can readily find employment in capitalist America. The free market is politics-blind, religion-blind, and, yes, race-blind. Do you ask about the politics or the religion of the farmer who grew the potatoes you buy at the store? Do you ask about the color of the hands that helped produce the steel you use in your office building?….
To look at this another way: The free market is often said to be impersonal, and indeed it is. Rather than a vice, this is one of its great virtues. Because the relationships are substantially impersonal, they are not usually marked by bitter personal conflict….
I rest my case rather on the consistency of the free market with man’s essential nature, on the basic morality of its system of rewards and punishments, on the protection it gives to the integrity of the individual.
The free market cannot produce the perfect world, but it can create an environment in which each imperfect man may conduct his lifelong search for purpose in his own way, in which each day he may order his life according to his own imperfect vision of his destiny, suffering both the agonies of his errors and the sweet pleasure of his successes. This freedom is what it means to be a man; this is the God-head, if you wish.
I give you, then, the free market, the economic expression of man’s freedom itself and the guarantor of all his other freedoms.
This is an excerpt of an article that appeared in the September 1963 issue of The Freeman, published by The Foundation for Economic Education. It was reprinted by permission in the July 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.