The year 2020 will, most certainly, go down in history as a momentous one. Having started out in January with most people fairly confident that relatively prosperous times were likely to continue at least into 2021, it witnessed within a couple of months entire economies almost everywhere collapsing into one of the most serious economic downturns of the last 100 years owing to the coronavirus and the response of governments around the world.
In the United States, nothing like the percentage magnitude of economy-wide falling output and rising unemployment had been seen since the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The reason for such a dramatic and huge decline was the U.S. governments’ closing down large parts of the American economy.
Donald Trump infamously insisted, at one point, that as the chief executive of the federal government, he held all the power to shut down the society and to then reopen it. But it has been, for the most part, the actions of state governments across the country that imposed lockdowns on work and production except for what state governors and their advisors declared to be “essential activities,” and prohibited people from socially interacting or shopping for anything except for the “essentials” of food and pharmaceuticals.
Double-digit unemployment and matching falls in output and sales of finished goods of almost every type were the responsibility of no other source than the commands and controls of those in political authority, whether at the
national or state levels. On top of that, most of the edicts, decrees, and dictates were issued with asserted arbitrary power, under the general and elusive headings of a “national emergency” and a “health crisis.”
Fear and liberty
A political cartoon that ran in a number of places in March and April showed the Statue of Liberty bent over crying with her hands covering her face, the torch of liberty at her feet on the ground, with an American citizen standing nearby and saying, “But we were afraid!” As is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
It is very clear that the coronavirus is a serious health risk and relatively easy to transmit. It has been emphasized, from its patterns and impact, that while many can easily catch it, it predominately threatens those older than 65, especially those with a variety of underlying preconditions already undermining their health. In addition, at this writing, for reasons that have not been fully discovered, it also seems to disproportionally affect certain racial and ethnic groups more than others.
Millions have been infected and hundreds of thousands have died from the virus. That is a terrible human tragedy, not only for the individuals who have fallen victim to it, and for their loved ones, but also for humanity as whole. All those who have died were distinct individual human beings, unique in their qualities, characteristics, and contributions (great and small) to the betterment of all of us from their past actions and through their particular knowledge, skills, expertise, and capacities.
Let us not forget that every human being touches many people around him throughout his life, and his presence influences those he interacts with in many unknowable ways, making each person different from what he might have been if not for that other person’s place in the meaningful processes of everyday human life.
In other words, every life has value. It is the reason that friends of freedom place so much importance on respect for and protection of each individual’s right to his life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It is why those friends of freedom have been so critical of the presumption by governments to take charge of dealing with the coronavirus in place of the voluntary associations of civil society, both within and beyond the marketplace of supply and demand.
A government-made crisis
Everywhere we turn, we have found almost all governments imposing variations on the central-planning theme through systems of command and control. Federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) applied their regulatory rules and restrictions on all attempts to meet the medical needs of those facing the growing number of patients suffering from the coronavirus. For instance, they dictated how breathing ventilators, hand sanitizers, and virus-resisting masks were to be manufactured and supplied, and by whom.
Governments refused, at first, to loosen any of the procedural restrictions, even when it became clear that their own failures, incompetence, and regulatory rigidities were the stumbling blocks to finding ways to fill the production and supply gaps they had created in a dynamically worsening situation that desperately needed rapid and flexible innovative adaptation.
The president of the United States could think of nothing to do other than close borders and insist that import barriers and tariffs were still good, when foreign supplies of essential items might have been imported as useful additions at better prices to increase the domestic quantities. Then, after praising the “great work” being done by private enterprise, he drew upon a Korean War–era executive power still on the books to demand and dictate that certain businesses produce certain goods and in stipulated quantities. Donald Trump presumed that he was an all-powerful American king with the authority to tell his citizen-subjects what they were to do, when, and for what.
Just as arbitrarily, the same president declared that it was now time to start opening the states that were in lockdown, but at the pace and procedures that he and his medical advisors considered timely and appropriate. It was all up to the state governments, he said, but as he considered the right way.
The freedom road
It never entered the general public discourse that the best policy would have been for the governments to do virtually little or nothing. Such a laissez-faire approach was not a call to “do nothing” in the face of the virus crisis and to thoughtlessly and cruelly allow multitudes to die. It was, for the very small number of people who even thought of suggesting it, an appeal to set lose the knowledge and abilities, the skills and creativity of 330 million people in the country to imagine, devise, and design ways to meet the changing challenges from the virus as it affected in different ways those in different parts of the land at different times.
It was a reminder of the power and effectiveness of the competitive market and price system: That changing relative prices serve as both signals and incentives to inform and direct the coordinated cooperation of all in society without having to rely upon and wait for those in political decision-making positions at various layers of government to figure out, decide, and dictate what everyone else is to do. Decentralized and open markets free us from dependency upon the limited knowledge and abilities of a few.
Such a free-market-based system was a part of the principles and ideas upon which the United States was founded, and which guided the practice in many, if not most, instances for the first hundred years of the country’s existence. What were those principles and ideas that made up the great American experiment in human liberty and voluntary cooperation?
Liberty and free association
A useful guide may be found in (Viscount) James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth, first published in 1888. A noted British lawyer and later diplomat, Bryce (1838–1922) had originally written it for a British audience. He wanted to convey the nature of the American political, social, and cultural order in a fair, relatively dispassionate, yet highly sympathetic way. For at least the half-century after its first appearance, The American Commonwealth was considered an insightful and important analysis and interpretation of American society and its political system.
Unlike those in Europe, Bryce said, Americans did not hold “the state” in awe or reverence. It was considered simply a mechanism for the legislative and administrative duties assigned to the political authority. It had no separate conscience and it was not on any “moral mission” to which the individual citizens were to be subservient. Government was there to secure law and order in the protecting of the citizen’s individual rights.
About their government, Bryce explained the general attitude among Americans:
The less government the better; that is to say, the fewer occasions for interfering with individual citizens are allowed to officials, and the less time citizens have to spend in looking after their officials, so much more will the citizens and the community prosper. The functions of government should be kept to a minimum.
This doctrine of laissez-faire or noninterference by government in the lives of the citizenry arose from two bases, Bryce went on — what he called the “sentimental” and the “rational”:
The sentimental ground is the desire of the individual to be let alone, to do as he pleases, indulge his impulses, follow out his own projects. The rational ground is the principle, gathered from an observation of the phenomena of society, that interference by government more often does harm than good — that is to say, that the desires and impulses of men when left to themselves are more likely by their natural collision and cooperation to work out a happy result for the community and the individuals that compose it than will be attained by the conscious endeavors of the state.
For a large majority of Americans, this sentiment for individual liberty was part of the deep cultural legacy and inspiration from the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It reflected “the character and habits” of the people “that everybody knows his own business best, that individual enterprise has ‘made America’ and will ‘run America’ better than the best government could do,” said Bryce.
From the founding of the country, Bryce emphasized, “individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride of personal freedom, have been deemed by Americans not only their choicest, but their peculiar and exclusive possession.”
But already in the 1880s, James Bryce pointed out that America was making a turn toward greater and more-intrusive government. People were coming to believe that if there were problems in “modern society,” government could more effectively handle them than individuals and private enterprise. Appeals for bureaucratic regulation and intervention were growing in a number of quarters. There were social ills and conflicts, it was said, that only government could alleviate and cure.
An interesting and important question, of course, is why this turn away from liberty and toward renewed political paternalism was coming about. Bryce tried to explain that as well. The more that society advanced economically and materially, and the more prosperity and improvement there was among the general population, the more remaining scenes and instances of poverty, misfortune, and seeming social injustice seemed intolerable; people became impatient, wanting these “anomalies” in the face of increasing well-being to be removed by government as soon as possible.
Was it necessary, it was asked, to see these undesirable blemishes remaining around us until “natural” forces in society might slowly bring about their improvement? Given the level of general prosperity and wealth, could not government take the lead in removing their ills and sores on society right now through political action? In Bryce’s own words,
Men live fast, and are impatient of the slow working of natural laws. The triumphs of the physical sciences have enlarged their desires for comfort and shown them how many things may be accomplished by the application of collective skill and large funds which are beyond the reach of individual effort….
The sight of preventable evil is painful, and is felt as a reproach. He who preaches patience and reliance upon natural progress is thought callous…. Men [in America] are even more eager than in Europe to hasten on to the ends they desire, even more impatient of the delays which a reliance on natural forces involves, even more sensitive to the wretchedness of their fellows, and to the mischiefs which vice and ignorance breed.
Bryce also said that so gradual had been the transition in thinking from the idea and ideal of individual liberty and limited government to “this new habit” of searches for political paternalistic solutions to social problems that only some lawyers and economists had at first become aware of the shift in sentiment.
But now, already in 1888, more and more people had “the desire to have things done which a public authority can most quickly do, and the cost of which is less felt by each man because it comes out of the public revenue, to which he is only one of the contributors.” For the 1910 revised edition of The American Commonwealth, Bryce added a note listing all the intrusions, interferences, and interventions that either the federal or especially the state governments had already enacted everywhere around the United States, supplanting private initiative and personal choice and responsibility.
It is should not be too surprising that after 100 years more of “this new habit” of looking for answers and guidance from the government, the great majority of people in the United States deferred to it and expected leadership and commanding direction from those in high political office and the bureaucratic “experts” that surround them when it came to how to effectively deal with the coronavirus crisis.
The power of the private sector
So, are private-enterprise answers to social problems dead? Are the voluntary associations of civil society devoid of methods to deal with a dilemma such as the current health crisis? In my view, the answer is, “No.” The original spirit of the American experiment in personal freedom and voluntary effort has been showing its continuing vibrancy and vitality.
In either acts of regulatory “civil disobedience,” or under the social pressure of government’s lifting or loosening the regulatory rigidities, personal creativity and innovative private enterprise have generated a plethora of stop-gap and more permanent ways of producing and supplying needed medical equipment and personal protective gear for hospital personnel and for the public at large.
To the extent possible, small and medium-size businesses most at financial risk owing to the mandatory shutdowns ordered by state governments found ways to operate within or around the guidelines to not only not go under, but to fulfill the everyday market needs of the general public forced to confine their own activities to the political dictates.
They moved to store-front pick-ups or home deliveries, or limited the number of customers permitted to enter business establishments to shop or pick up called-in orders; and they devised ways to keep supply-chains of inputs flowing so final goods remain available. They organized helping-hand charitable endeavors to assist the infirm or the elderly who are either unable or fearful of venturing out of their homes to get food and other essential items. They structured meetings in ways that enable people to “socially distance” through the Internet or gathering in their cars while remaining apart.
All these, and multitudes of others, have shown and demonstrated the effectiveness and essentiality of relying upon the principles of freedom and voluntarism that were the cornerstones of the American founding and which guided much that went on in society for a very long time, before the emerging and increasing interference of political paternalists or being coopted by them. Indeed, one good thing that could come out of the terrible health tragedy would be if there were a serious and thorough rethinking about the desirability and necessity for the spiders’ webs of regulations, prohibitions, and restrictions that have enveloped so much of the social arena and private marketplace over the decades of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
The “social” over the political
It is necessary and desirable for each of us to regain an appreciation of the vital importance of voluntarism, both in the marketplace and in the wider institutional setting of civil society, that is, the arenas of life outside of and greater than the narrow corner of what should be politics in a truly free society. We need to restore the attitude of those earlier Americans, about whom James Bryce spoke, when he said that the state was not considered something greater than the individual citizens with special missions to pursue. It is merely a mechanism meant in the American tradition to protect liberty, and really not much else.
In the 1970s, the noted American sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913–1996) wrote the Twilight of Authority (1975). Historically and culturally, authority referred to the voluntarily won and recognized and respected possession of useful and valued knowledge, experience, and trust on the basis of which others in society deferred to a particular person’s judgment and wisdom. Human associations and authorities were local, voluntary, and mutually assisting and supporting. They are the essential and central elements to the spontaneous order of a free society.
Governments especially in the 20th century, Nisbet argued, increasingly replaced civil society and its associations of voluntary authority and collaborative assistance in everyday affairs as well as in times of hardship and emergency. The real and proper meaning of “community” in the voluntary, associative and market-based sense, has been replaced with political command and control, Nisbet explained.
We are, he warned, “prisoners in the House of Politics”:
Of all the consequences of the steady politicization of our social order, of the unending centralization of political power … the greatest in many ways is the weakening and disappearance of traditions in which authority and liberty alike are anchored….
Of all the needs in this age the greatest is, I think, a recovery of the social, with its implication of the diversity of social membership, that in fact exists in human behavior, and the liberation of the idea of the social from the political…. Crucial are the voluntary groups and associations. It is the element of the spontaneous, of untrammeled, unforced volition, that is undoubtedly vital to creative relationships among individuals….
Voluntary associations have an importance well beyond what they do directly for their individual members. Most of the functions which are today lodged either in the state or in great formal organizations came into existence in the first place in the context of largely voluntary association. This is true of mutual aid in all its forms — education, socialization, social security, recreation, and the like…. It is in the context of such [voluntary] association, in short, that most steps in social progress have taken place.
Friends of freedom should take this opportunity to explain to and persuade our fellow citizens that in spite of all the scare tactics and appearances of scientific expertise about the nature and needed responses to the coronavirus, decentralized actions by market-based private enterprises and the voluntary associations and networks of civil society at various levels of social interaction are always superior to the heavy hand of government planning. And most especially because it is the only institutional avenue that ensures the protection and preservation of liberty.
This article was originally published in the July 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.