Americans are waking up to the reality that our once free republic is in serious trouble. They are searching for answers to what seem like unsolvable problems: economic depression, unending war, political corruption, and vanishing liberties. What if there were just one answer – freedom? The American republic was founded upon that principle, yet few suggest it is the solution to any of our problems, much less all of them. But if freedom is the answer, we first must know what it is. Sadly, most Americans do not. That is why I wrote this book.
“Thomas Mullen is a knowledgeable and passionate libertarian and A Return to Common Sense is a valuable addition to the libertarian literature. Those new to the freedom movement will benefit from Tom’s introduction to both the practical and moral arguments for freedom. Long-time activists will benefit from Tom’s explanation of why strict adherence to principle is vital to the future success of the liberty movement.”
“A well written primer on economics, liberty, and government that even avid Austrians will enjoy. If you have been blinded by government and Wall Street propaganda, A Return to Common Sense will help open your eyes. I not only recommend that you add this book to your freedom library, but that you buy a few copies for your friends.”
Tom Mullen has written a thorough and useful book. Those for whom a discussion of liberty is a new experience will discover in A Return to Common Sense a clear, easy to understand guide to the nature of freedom, and why it is essential to our fondest hopes for a civil society of opportunity, peace, and prosperity. For those who already share these values, it’s a welcome resource for perfecting our own knowledge and advancing our cause.
What is Freedom?
“And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world?”
– Frederic Bastiat1 (1850)
If there is one thing uniquely associated with America, it is freedom. From the moment Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, America has been a symbol of liberty to the entire world. Since the end of World War II, when the United States assumed a worldwide leadership role, it has been the leader of the “free world.” At sporting events, standing crowds begin their ovation when the vocalist singing the national anthem gets to the words, “O’er the land of the free.” Even in everyday conversations, scarcely a day goes by that one does not hear someone say, “Do what you like, it’s a free country.”
Although we all agree that America is the “land of the free,” there are questions about freedom that might be more difficult to answer. What is freedom? How is it defined? What makes America the land of the free? How would we know if we were to lose our freedom? What is it that our soldiers die for and our politicians swear to defend?
We have been told a lot of things about what freedom is not. From the end of World War II until 1991, most Americans understood that freedom was not communism. For almost three generations, Americans lived in the “free world” during its cold war with the communist Eastern Bloc. Without further thought or instruction, many children of the 20th century think of freedom merely as the antithesis of communism. In some ways, this is not completely untrue, although it hardly provides a complete answer to our question.
Certainly, the mere absence of communism doesn’t necessarily guarantee freedom. The 18th century British monarchy wasn’t communist, but the American colonists nevertheless considered it tyrannical enough to rebel against. Likewise, the Royal House of Saud may be an ally of the U.S. government, but most Americans would not regard Saudi Arabia as a “free country.”
In addition to monarchies, there are plenty of dictatorships around the world that don’t enforce a communist system but are nevertheless oppressive. While they also may be allies of the U.S. government, they certainly aren’t free countries, either. So, a society is not free merely because it is not communist.
On the other hand, monarchy doesn’t seem to necessarily preclude freedom, either. Great Britain has been a relatively free country throughout much of its history, even when the monarchy was much more than a figurehead. The American Revolution notwithstanding, Great Britain was at that time one of the freest societies in the world. Therefore, rather than conclude that no freedom is possible under a monarchy, one might instead conclude that monarchies neither guarantee nor necessarily exclude freedom. Freedom or tyranny seems possible under almost any system of government.
Perhaps we can define freedom more easily by looking at its antithesis. Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists slavery among antonyms for freedom. Surely, we have found a start here. Most people would agree that slavery is the complete absence of freedom. Who can we imagine that is less free than the slave? This is helpful in beginning to try to frame an answer, but freedom cannot be merely the absence of slavery. Surely our founding fathers bled to give us a higher standard than this!
If we are told anything about what freedom is, it is that freedom is democracy. If you ask most Americans, this is the answer you will get. This is reinforced ad nauseum by politicians, media, and teachers in our public schools. When Iraq held its first elections after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, politicians and journalists universally celebrated the Iraqis’ “first taste of freedom.”
Certainly, democracy is a vast improvement over the autocratic rule of a dictator. But does democracy automatically mean freedom? If democracy is rule by the majority, what about the minority? What if 51 % of the people voted to oppress the other 49%? Would that society truly be free?
Most Americans would be quite surprised to learn what our founding fathers thought about democracy. Any objective analysis would conclude that their feelings lay somewhere between suspicion and contempt.
James Madison said, “Democracy is the most vile form of government … democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,”2
In a letter to James Monroe, he also said,
“There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.”3
While often extolling the virtue of majority rule, Thomas Jefferson nevertheless wrote,
“…that the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”4
Can this be true? The founding fathers were ambivalent about democracy? For many people, this is tantamount to sacrilege. More shocking still is what the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution say about democracy: nothing. Nowhere in our founding documents will you find the word “democracy” or the assertion, implicit or explicit, that our government is a democracy. How can this be?
Despite what we are taught virtually from birth, the United States of America has never been a democracy. As only contrarians point out these days, it is a constitutional republic. We choose our leaders using the democratic process of majority vote, but that is the extent to which the United States involves itself with democracy.
Like monarchy, democracy neither guarantees nor necessarily prohibits freedom. Our founders actually feared that democracy poses a danger to freedom. Apart from the pure heresy of the idea, it leaves us with a problem. We are no closer to defining freedom. If even democracy is not freedom, perhaps freedom doesn’t really exist! If we are not to find freedom in democracy, where else can we look?
We certainly won’t learn what freedom is from our politicians. While terrorism, healthcare, unemployment, gay marriage, and a host of other “major issues” dominate public debate, freedom is just too quaint, too academic, or too forgotten to get any airplay. Yet, as we shall see as we explore the different subjects of this book, freedom is the fundamental issue. In fact, despite what we perceive as a myriad of different problems facing the United States of America today, freedom is actually the only issue. That may be hard to accept, given the decades of shoddy history, obfuscation, and plain old bad ideas we’ve been bombarded with. Nevertheless, our greatest challenges and their solutions revolve around freedom. If freedom is really that important, we’d better be absolutely sure we know what it is.
In order to answer the question posed by Bastiat at the beginning of this chapter, we will have to go back to the beginning. Our founding fathers faced no such quandary about the definition of freedom. They knew exactly what it was. They were children of the Enlightenment, and derived their ideas about freedom directly from its philosophers, especially John Locke. While these philosophers were powerful thinkers and their ideas were (no pun intended) revolutionary at the time, the principles of liberty are relatively simple. They are, as the namesake of this book concluded, common sense. It was an understanding of these revolutionary ideas by average American colonists that inspired the revolution that gave birth to a nation.
The idea that opens the door to the true meaning of freedom is individual rights. Despite the emphasis today on the “general welfare” and the “common good,” the American tradition of liberty has nothing to do with either. Instead, the founders believed each individual was born with natural, inalienable rights. The Declaration of Independence states,
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” 5
This passage is quoted widely in popular culture. Invariably, the words emphasized are “that all men are created equal.” Certainly, these are fine words and worthy of veneration. However, the rest of this passage is equally important. Every human being, because of his equality with all other human beings, has rights no earthly power can take away. These rights are “unalienable,” so that governments, even democratically elected governments, have no power to revoke them. To the founding fathers this was self-evident. It was true based purely upon man’s existence itself.
This idea is drawn directly from the philosophy of John Locke, who wrote,
“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection,”6
While these rights are endowed by a Creator, the founders did not specify who the Creator was. Too often, those arguing for the ideals of our republic make the fatal mistake of basing the natural rights upon belief not only in God, but specifically upon the Christian God. While the founders were by no means opposed to Christianity, belief in it or even in God is not a prerequisite for the existence of the natural rights. The beauty of this idea is that it transcends religion and thus welcomes members of all religions, and those with no religious beliefs at all. Therefore, the first building block of freedom, individual, inalienable rights, can be claimed by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, by every person on earth.
So what are these inalienable rights, which cannot be taken away? The Declaration goes on to say, “That among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”7
At first glance, this statement might be a bit deceiving, maybe even a little disappointing. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? Is that all? Surely we have more rights than these! Of course, the Declaration says “among these,” so it does not limit the natural rights to these three. But these three are important. It is worthwhile to determine the meaning of each.
The right to life is pretty easy to understand. Most civilized societies have laws against murder. Each individual has a right not to be killed by another human being, except in self-defense. So far, so good. What about the other two? We are in the midst of trying to define liberty, or freedom, so let us put that aside for the moment. The third right listed is “the pursuit of happiness.” What does that mean? Does it mean nothing? Or does it mean everything? What if it makes me happy to steal cars or blow up buildings? Surely, I don’t have a right to pursue happiness like that!
No. There is a natural limit on liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Again, we can find the answer in Locke,
“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” 8
While people are free to do what they want, they must do so “within the bounds of the law of nature.” What is the law of nature? Locke goes on to tell us,
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…” 9
Finally, we have some indication of what freedom is, rather than what it is not. Liberty is not the unlimited ability to do whatever you want, nor is it confined to the arbitrary limits placed upon people by governments. Contrary to the spurious argument that unfettered liberty would result in chaos, we see that the law of nature, Reason, very clearly and unambiguously prohibits some actions, even for people in a state of absolute liberty. They are:
1. Initiating the use of force or violence
2. Infringing upon another person’s liberty
3. Harming them in their possessions.
This last limit upon the actions of free individuals is important. Locke spends an entire chapter of his Second Treatise talking about it. It is related to property, which is arguably the most important right, while at the same time the least understood. Property is important enough that we will spend the next chapter examining the subject. To do this we will have to come to a clear definition of property, including how it is acquired, how it is exchanged, and what right the owner has to it.
More importantly, we have arrived at a definition of liberty. It is the right of any person to do as they please, as long as they do not violate the equal rights of anyone else. The latter half of this definition is generally referred to as the “non-aggression principle.” Political activists associate this principle with libertarians, while intellectuals associate it with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Certainly both movements recognize and venerate it, but it is important to realize that neither is its source. In fact, the non-aggression principle has been articulated with very little variation by all writers in the liberal tradition, including Locke, Jefferson, Paine, Bastiat, Mill, and later Rand and other 20th century writers and thinkers.
By applying this principle, the most complicated societal issues become astoundingly simple. The ambiguous becomes unambiguous. The answers become clear. Virtually every problem facing America today can be solved by applying the principle of freedom.
There are a few points we should review for emphasis. First, the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and drawn out of Locke’s philosophy are inalienable. They cannot be taken away by any power on earth, including a majority vote. The reason the founders were suspicious of democracy was because of their fear that the majority would oppress the individual by voting away the individual’s rights, especially property rights. This was the reason for the separation of powers and the limits on government authority. Even a majority vote can be a threat to freedom.
The difference between a right and a privilege is a vital concept to understand. A right is something you are born with, that you possess merely because you exist. A privilege is something that is granted by another person, group, or a government. Our country was founded upon the principle that all people have inalienable rights that cannot be taken away, not privileges granted by their government. As John Adams so eloquently put it,
“I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”10
There is no need to be “thankful for the rights we have in America.” All people have those rights and gratitude is neither necessary nor appropriate. Rather, people are justified in demanding their rights, and any violation of them should be recognized as an act of aggression.
Second, in any conflict between individual liberty and the will of the majority, individual liberty prevails without compromise. The majority has no right to violate the rights of the individual. This is to some extent merely making the first point in reverse, but it is important enough to say in more than one way. Society doesn’t have rights; individuals do. Society is nothing more than a collection of individuals, so protecting each individual in society protects society.
Despite these seemingly undeniable truths, individual liberty is today under constant attack because of its perceived conflict with the common good or “the needs of society.” While living together and agreeing not to initiate aggression against each other seems astoundingly simple, our politicians would have us believe there is something incredibly complicated about it. They create a world in which civil society is a maze of moral dilemmas that only their astute guidance can lead us safely through. Once liberty is properly understood and applied, all of these supposed dilemmas disappear.
Introduction: The American Crisis
1 Paine, Thomas The American Crisis “The Crisis No. 1” December 19, 1776 from Paine Collected Writings edited by Eric Foner Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. New York, NY 1955 pg. 91
Chapter 1: What is Freedom?
1 Bastiat, Frederic The Law 1850 from The Bastiat Collection 2 Volumes Vol. 1 Ludwig Von Mises Institute Auburn, AL 2007 pg. 79
2 Madison,James Federalist #10 http://www.foundingfathers.info/federalistpapers/fedi.htm http://www.foundingfathers.info/federalistpapers/fed10.htm
3 Madison, James Letter to James Monroe October 5th, 1786 James Madison Center, The http://www.jmu.edu/madison/center/home.htm Phillip Bigler, Director, James Madison University Harrisonburg, VA http://www.jmu.edu/madison/center/main_pages/madison_archives/quotes/supremacy.htm
4 Jefferson, Thomas To Dupont de Nemours from Jefferson Writings edited by Merrill D. Peterson New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984 pg. 1387
5 Declaration of Independence, United States 1776 National Archives and Records (website) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html
6 John Locke Second Treatise on Civil Government from Two Treatises of Government C. and J. Rivington, 1824 (Harvard University Library Copy) pg. 132
7 Declaration of Independence, United States 1776 National Archives…
8 Locke Second Treatise pgs. 131-32
9 Locke Second Treatise pg. 133
10 Adams, John A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law 1765 Ashland Center for Public Affairs (website) Ashland University http://www.ashbrook.org/library/18/adams/canonlaw.html
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