Classical liberal ideals go back to ancient times
At times, libertarian or classical liberal or pure laissez faire capitalist ideas are dismissed as part of a misguided modernity that’s lacking proper pedigree. But this is all wrong. Already back in circa 600 B.C.E. the Chinese sage Lao Tzu had weighed in with libertarian ideas, writing:
Why are people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious....
And in ancient Greece, Xenophon records an exchange between Pericles and Alcibiades in which the latter dismisses all government edicts that are coercive as plainly unlawful. As he put it, “It would seem to follow that if a tyrant, without persuading the citizens, drives them by enactment to do certain things - that is lawlessness.”
Of course, merely because a good idea has seen the light of day at some point in time, it doesn’t mean it actually carried the day.
Ideas of individual liberty did not begin to animate actual political affairs until rather late in the day, starting around the 11th century A. D. A good example of some such ideas beginning to make an impact is the Magna Carta.
And then, in time, came the American Founders, with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They managed, finally, to use the libertarian position, which they absorbed through their reading of history and philosophers such as John Locke, for practical, legal purposes.
Why so late with the emergence of practical legal measures that support individual liberty?
One reason is that in much of human history what carried the day was unmitigated, unabashed physical coercion, the powerful and well-armed running roughshod over the rest. Conquering thugs, armed to the teeth by monarchs and tribal chiefs, would not let up on their brutal subjugation of the population so they could extort from them their labor and whatever meager resources they have accumulated.
There had been slave and peasant revolts but not until a substantial middle class emerged, with the capacity to create wealth, did those not in the ruling class manage to be able to mount a resistance to the rulers.
And while some knew about the ideas that supported individualism and libertarianism, many were hoodwinked by stories of the divine rights of monarchs and the widely promulgated myth of class privilege.
In the modern era, what stood in the way of the liberation of individuals, the overturning of class rule, is the idea that individualism had been invented to serve the economically lucky and powerful. This was a ruse, of course, perpetrated by the cheerleaders of modern rulers, the likes of Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, who had no patience for individual rights and liberation but believed in a collectivism that included the entire globe!
They appealed to the myth of tribalism which they managed to sell to millions of people who, in turn, signed up for a unity of the workers but, of course, under the leadership - read: brutal rule - of the likes of Lenin and Stalin. Or they gave up their chance for freedom to national socialists or fascists like Hitler and Mussolini.
Even today the ideas and ideals of individual liberty fare badly because of the many excuses people use to keep others oppressed. The idea of class warfare that even American politicians deploy, for example, undercuts individualism.
Ethnicity, racism, gender politics and the like are all obstacles to making headway for bona fide individualism, with its politics of everyone’s equal unalienable natural rights as the foundation of the legal system, even as their proponents sometimes invoke individualist ideas to excuse the special political privileges they seek.
The Marxists dismissed individualism as an ideology that supposedly served the capitalist, thereby aiming to destroy the most efficient social engine of productivity, the one that unleashed the enormous energy of individual initiative and entrepreneurship.
We are, sadly, still in the grips of the big lie that individualism is some kind of insidious ideology.
What’s the remedy? Relentless, vigilant education in the history and philosophy of individualism and libertarianism. That’s the greatest hope for human liberation.
Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at Chapman University and is a research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and Hoover Institution (Stanford). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. His most recent book is "Libertarianism Defended," (Ashgate, 2006). E-mail him at TMachan@link.freedom.com.