Liberty is a delicate idea and institution. While people say they want freedom, fight under the banner of freedom, and even sometimes die for its preservation and advancement, determining what it actually means to be free and to live in a free society seems often elusive and controversial.
What it means for a society to be free is, perhaps, easier to have a sense of when such a society is confronted with its clear opposite: tyranny. This is especially the case with the 1930s, when freedom seemed to be facing a mortal challenge with the rise of totalitarianism in the various forms of Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and German National Socialism (Nazism).
Totalitarianism Meant the Individual Got Lost in the Collective
Whether the totalitarian banners had written on them a call to class warfare (communism) or national conflicts (fascism) or racial wars (Nazism), all of them insisted on the end to individual liberty. The individual had neither rights nor areas of life outside of the control of the totalitarian state. The interests of the proletarian class, or the nation-state, or the “master race” came before the individual human being.
How and where you lived; what you worked at and the pay and benefits you might receive; the people with whom you could or had to associate; the books or newspapers you might read, or the music you could listen to, or the plays you could watch; the places to which you could go for any reason; and the quality and prospects of life — all these and many other aspects of everyday life were determined by the totalitarian state in which some people due to birth or circumstances found themselves living, and from which escape was often impossible without serious risk to one’s own life.
The Soviet, fascist, and Nazi systems all were ruled by dictators — Joseph Stalin in Soviet Russia, Benito Mussolini in fascist Italy, and Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany — who insisted they ruled in the name of and spoke for the people, the nation, or the race. The role of the individual was to obey and sacrifice for the collective good.
Below the dictators were tightly woven layers of the respective party structures of the Soviet, fascist, and Nazi regimes. Through them everything and everyone were controlled in the societies over which they ruled. And each had its own secret police, with a knock on anyone’s door by its agents meaning arrest, interrogation, torture, imprisonment, and death.
Totalitarianism and the Feared Twilight of Liberty
Friends of freedom in the remaining non-totalitarian and democratic countries were horrified by what they saw in these totally collectivized societies. They were truly fearful that the ideal and practice of the free and open society were facing their twilight, with human liberty soon to be extinguished possibly everywhere around the globe.
The following are some of the voices of those friends of freedom from the mid-1930s, to give a sense of how they saw the world in which they lived. The first is William E. Rappard (1883–1958), a distinguished classical-liberal Swiss economist and political scientist who was also the director of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, from a lecture he delivered in 1934:
For generations, and in some cases, for centuries, all nations in the orbit of our Western civilization, have, through wars and revolutions, been striving to secure for all their members greater physical and moral security, greater political equality, greater individual freedom.… That is, more latitude for the self-expression and self-assertion of the individual in the face of the authority of tradition and the state.…
And such are some of the ideals … through stupidity and cowardice that, sometimes with the blind enthusiasm of mad fanaticism and sometimes with the dull resignation of impotence, [people are] disavowing, renouncing and abandoning. The individual, the family, the local and regional community, everything and everybody are being sacrificed to the State.
The State itself, once held to be the protector and the servant of the people, is in several countries of our Western civilization being turned into a weapon for oppressing its own citizens and threatening its neighbors, according to the capricious will of one or of a few self-appointed individuals.… They are today acclaimed as heroes by hundreds of thousands of European youth, welcomed as saviors by millions of European bourgeois, and accepted as inevitable by tens of millions of European senile cowards of all ages.
Freedoms Lost With the Totalitarian State
The second voice from the interwar period is that of William Henry Chamberlin (1897–1969), a noted author and international correspondent who spent eight years in Soviet Russia in the 1920s and early 1930s, followed by reporting from imperial Japan and Nazi-threatened Western Europe. This is from his 1937 book Collectivism: A False Utopia:
Before the [First] 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 were 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 at the border. Concentration camps for political recalcitrants and the wholesale conscription of forced labor as a means of getting public works done were unknown.
The history of the [post–Second World War] phase in Europe has been one of severe and unbroken defeats for the ideals of democracy and individual liberty. The revolutions of the twentieth century, unlike those of the eighteenth and the nineteenth, have led to the contraction, not to the expansion, of freedom. The two main governmental philosophies that have emerged since the war, fascism and communism, are based, in practice, on the most rigid regimentation of the individual.
Finally, as the famous Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) forlornly lamented in 1932, “Impatience with free institutions has led to open or masked dictatorships, and where dictatorships do not exist, the desire for them. Liberty, which before the [First World] War was a faith, or at least a routine acceptance, has now departed from the hearts of men even if it still survives in certain institutions.”
Lessons Still to Be Learned: Democracy vs. Liberty
Today, over 80 years after these and many other friends of freedom living through that time wrote such words and expressed those fears, it all seems so far away. They are people long gone, faces in old black-and-white photos. For many young men and women, that time is just some video documentaries that as students they had to sit through, which appeared to have no or little relevance to their lives and circumstances. Just some of that boring history stuff.
But what can still be learned from those bygone voices? The first is that democracy by itself is not freedom. The totalitarian tyrants of the 1930s all proclaimed that theirs were the freest and most democratic societies on earth. Freedom was the advancement of the good of the society as a whole. Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler all insisted that their coercive collectivist means were the most democratic methods because they suppressed the narrow, petty, and individual interests of some so the true interests of all (the workers, the nation, the race) could triumph for the promised better world in the making.
These were sham democracies, with no real freedom, of course. Democratic processes are usually majoritarian procedures for determining how those holding political office will be appointed through elections and for what period of time. They do not say, by themselves, what the government will do or for what ends.
Freedom Means the Rights and Autonomy of the Individual
Freedom means rights, autonomy, and dignity for the individual human being. When William Rappard delivered a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 1938 (“The Crisis of Democracy”), he reminded his listeners, “What was primary in the eyes of the founders of American independence were the individual rights of equality [before the law] and liberty. Democracy, however important, was but secondary — a necessary means toward an absolute end.… Popular government was set up, not so much by reason of any inherent virtues of its own, as because it was deemed necessary to establish and safeguard the fundamental rights of the individual.”
Free societies are those that recognize and respect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful and voluntary association and assembly, and freedom of religion. No democratic government should be considered legitimate, Rappard said, that did not arise from the existence and unmolested practice of such freedoms. How can people express their views and values, debate important issues that jointly may matter to them, or organize with others who share their perspectives and interests if these rights are not protected?
But more fundamental than these political prerequisites to effective and functioning democratic systems was the importance of these and related individual rights for the freedom of individuals to live their lives as they choose — selecting their own ends, deciding on the possibly appropriate means to their ends’ achievement — and their free association and voluntary exchange in pursuit of mutual gain.
As the noted British historian G.P. Gooch (1873–1968) concisely said it in Dictatorship in Theory and Practice (1935):
Western civilization in its higher aspects rests on belief of the worth of the individual citizen.… The vision of freedom, of the liberation of the human spirit from its primeval bondage, is perhaps the greatest light which has dawned on our horizon.… Life, to be worth living, must be a continuous process of self-realization, a fulfillment of the law of one’s being, an unfolding of our aptitudes.…
We may say … that the emergence of the individual, the growing recognition of the right to be oneself, is among the main achievements of the modern world. It is this affirmation of personality that has led to universal franchise, to religious equality, to the liberty of the Press, to the freedom of teaching, speculation and research.…
This urge of the spirit is frowned on by the totalitarian State.… It grips you body and soul, dwarfs your personality, stunts your growth. Its ideal is one party, one pattern, one rhythm, one creed.… Dictatorship is [the] cult of violence.… For only by violence or the threat of violence can the infinite variety of human types be dragooned into the mechanical unity which the Dictator demands.… The totalitarian State stands for force naked and unashamed.
The Totalitarian Seed in Identity Politics of Race and Gender
If this seems far away from our own times, there are, in fact, petty totalitarians in our midst, whose political power, if they were to gain what they clearly desire, would result in our facing the same threat others faced 80 years ago. On many of our college campuses, there has emerged an ideology of identity politics no less totalitarian in its premises and its nature.
According to the identity-politics ideologues, we are not individuals with our own histories, experiences, beliefs, hopes and dreams, and desires to find our own ways to happiness and fulfillment. No, we are a racial group, a gender classification, or a social class that defines us, determines us, and dictates our place, privilege, and prospects in life.
Our minds are to be re-educated, our words must be policed, our actions must be under surveillance, so all may be made to think one way, have one set of attitudes and one notion of human associations and identifications. How can there be freedom of speech or freedom of the press when what may be spoken or written is dictated by what the would-be identity-politics dictators of the mind insist upon imposing on all of us?
What freedom of association and exchange can survive when human relationships are a priori designated as privileged or unprivileged, when one’s income or wealth arising from voluntary and peaceful buying and selling results in one’s being condemned as an antisocial exploiter or praised as the oppressed victim of economic injustice that may have nothing to do with actual private or political plunder?
But, wait, you might think, these are only small, though admittedly vocal and demanding, groups of university professors, emotional and misguided students, and media-charged intellectuals always looking for the latest fashionable political bandwagon to jump on.
Marxists and other socialists all began as small groups of radical dreamers of utopias to come; Italian fascists and German Nazis began as small groups of nationalists and racists who wanted to make their nation great again or purified of degenerate racial types. They too insisted on thinking about and treating all according to everyone’s classification as class exploiter or exploited, or nationalist friend or foe, or racial brother or blood enemy. They all started as small, often ignored, hardly-taken-seriously proponents of earlier versions of identity politics.
Like the earlier versions, today’s identity politics is a cult of violence, with its proponents’ call for imposed safe spaces, insistence on censorship and restrictions on spoken and written words, and demands that those they label as exploiting or privileged groups be expelled, persecuted, and punished. How else can you impose this treatment on others than through private or political use of force? (See my articles “Campus Collectivism and the Counter-revolution Against Liberty,”  “Tyrants of the Mind and the New Collectivism,”  and “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality.” )
Meaning of Economic Liberty and Its Totalitarian Rejection
While a system of identity politics must bring an end to personal liberty of thought, word, and action in general, such a system would bring about an end to economic liberty as well.
What is economic liberty? Another friend of freedom in the 1930s, the British economist Francis W. Hirst (1873–1953), concisely defined it in his book Economic Freedom and Private Property (1935):
By economic freedom in a modern State, I mean the right of every individual, under guarantees of equal law and justice, to pursue whatever trade, profession, or calling he likes — as artist, lawyer, journalist, architect, builder, shopkeeper, merchant, manufacturer, farmer, ship owner, etc.; to engage in any lawful employment for wages or profit; to save and invest, and to own property.
This was the very type of freedom all the totalitarian systems opposed. Such systems either abolished private enterprise or placed it under the radical control of the government. In the Soviet Union, all private property in the means of production was seized and nationalized by the new Communist government, guided by Marx’s condemnation of private enterprise and the profit motive, beginning first under Vladimir Lenin and then completed under Joseph Stalin with devastating effect on the lives of tens of millions of people.
In fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, most private property was not widely confiscated, but all private enterprise ended up being made subservient to the dictates of the totalitarian state. Just as the Soviet Union under Stalin instituted five-year central plans in 1929, Italy under Mussolini planned economic activity through the fascist corporativist state, and after 1936 Hitler’s Nazi planners imposed a four-year central plan on the German economy.
Central planning necessarily means straitjacketing all members of society within the dictates of the government’s economic designs. A central plan requires an overarching hierarchy of values and goals. Individuals’ preferences and plans are submerged within the political blueprints of the government planners.
Either Individual Plans or One Government Plan Imposed on All
This was a theme focused on by the Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek (1899–1992) in 1939, shortly before the beginning of the Second World War in the monograph Freedom and the Economic System. In any complex and developed society, he said, there is inescapably a wide diversity of values and desires among all the members of the society.
These variations in people’s goals are harmonized on a free market through people’s offering to perform various services and providing numerous goods as the means to peacefully attract others to do things for them. In the free market, each party to a trade uses the other as means to their own ends: I supply you with the coat you want in trade for the pair of shoes I desire.
But once a central plan is impressed on all, each is compelled to serve as the economic means to the central planners’ goals and designs. Explained Hayek:
Comprehensive economic planning, which is regarded as necessary to organize economic activity on more rational and efficient lines, presupposes a much more complete agreement on the relative importance of the different social ends than actually exists, and in consequence, in order to be able to plan, the planning authority must impose upon the people the detailed code of values that is lacking.…
Economic planning always involves the sacrifice of some ends in favor of others.… The decision on the relative importance of conflicting aims is necessarily a decision about the relative merits of different groups and individuals. Planning necessarily becomes planning in favor of some and against others.
But, again, is this not long ago and far away? This type of comprehensive central planning ended with the disappearance of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Who calls for such totalitarian planning today, other than in the remaining communist backwaters of North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela?
Government Intervention as Piecemeal Planning
All forms of government intervention — taxation and regulation — within a market economy are forms of government planning. Taxation means using power to redirect the free choices each of us as individuals would have made if those in political authority had not taxed away a portion of our income and wealth for reasons having nothing to do with the essential and narrow function of protecting each person’s right to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property.
The government uses its fiscal powers to determine who should be left with less of the income and wealth they have earned and to whom some portion of the taxed-away income should be redistributed. The same is true with various forms of government regulation. The goal is to influence how people go about their investment and production decisions: what goods and services are marketed, how people go about producing what they attempt to sell, where they locate their production facilities, and the methods by which they may market their wares to their prospective customers.
These are forms of partial and overlapping fiscal socialism and regulatory economic planning. When the president of the United States uses his executive authority to impose import taxes on particular goods coming from specific countries, he is trying to plan the types and quantities of goods available to the American public and the prices they will have to pay to purchase the goods at home or from one of the foreign sellers. That is, as Hayek said, deciding “in favor of some and against others.”
Extend such fiscal and regulatory intervention in enough directions and with sufficient intrusiveness on what otherwise would have been the free and voluntary choices of all the individual members of society, and the cumulative effect is the imposing of a network of interconnected government plans, with the loss of economic liberty over more and more of the society as a whole. (See my article “The Free Market vs. the Interventionist State.” )
When looked at through the perspective of those friends of freedom of the 1930s who were facing the threat of totalitarian tyranny and all-around central planning, the difference between personal and economic liberty and government command and control becomes very clear.
That very clarity, I would suggest, brings into greater relief the nature of and dangers from such tyrannical trends as identity-politics tribalism and the losses of freedom through each and every extension of government control or influence over our individual economic affairs.
This article was originally published by The American Institute for Economic Research.