Freedom is Dead; Long Live Freedom.

Wendy McElroy
Jul. 22, 2012

Why has America, a nation known for rugged individualism, descended so quickly into submission and a police state?

In 1831, the French political theorist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville received a commission to examine the prison system in  America. His personal purpose, however, was to examine the character of a new America to which many Frenchmen looked as a model. After turning in his official report on prisons, De Tocqueville published his more personal findings: a pivotal work entitled Democracy in America (two volumes: 1835 and 1840).

The primary purpose of Democracy was to explore the American political system but it also commented upon the character of civil society. De Tocqueville wrote, “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” Unlike status-conscious Europeans, Americans shook hands with each other as though there were no social distinctions. De Tocqueville was amazed by town meetings at which everyone unabashedly voiced their opinions and objections. America was not a nation of bowed heads.

Scroll forward about two centuries to 9/11 and the creation of a  a bowed America. But 9/11 cannot explain the rapidity and ease with which a police state arose in the "land of the free." The terrorist attacks were not the cause but the tipping point in a long process that has worked quietly in America’s political background. For many years, institutions designed to protect individual rights have been eroded. These are institutions such as courts that respect due process or schools that teach critical thinking.

These institutions form a powerful barrier that shields liberty by restraining government. Over time, however, they became hollowed-out shells…or worse. They became tools of government intrusion and living mockeries of their former selves, from courts that blithely enforce unconstitutional laws to a public school system that teaches conformity. When the two planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11, it was not merely the buildings that shattered but the last remnants of freedom-oriented institutions as well.

Most Americans did not seem to notice at first. Perhaps many had lived with liberty so long that they took it for granted that America was the freest nation in the world; it always had been; it always would be; it is innate within the American character. They missed a fundamental truth that is obvious to anyone in a totalitarian state. Namely, the continuation of both liberty and personal safety rests upon invisible institutions like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Only when the institutions disappear does it become obvious that their presence means the difference between speaking with impunity and being shot as a dissident.

America’s freedom did not spring from characteristics innate within the American soul. Ask yourself a question: Why would a child born in Wisconsin be more naturally inclined to liberty than one born in Mexico City or the Ukraine? There is no genetic explanation. It was the institutions of America that were largely responsible for its freedoms; the institutions helped to shape the character of Americans by encouraging them to value peaceful exchange and productivity. Why? Because they were able to reap the rewards of civil society and hard work. This is what De Tocqueville saw -- the character of a free and equal people who felt at liberty to look others in the eye and to speak their mind. This is what amazed De Tocqueville -- a society of free men.

What is an institution?

An institution is any stable and widely-accepted mechanism for achieving social and political goals. Traditional institutions of society include the family, court systems, the free market, and churches. Institutions generally evolve over time to reflect the history and dynamics of a culture. For example, the institution of common law evolved on a grassroots level to meet the demand for justice by average people. Equally, the institutions of money and the market arose to satisfy human need and desire for goods.

As those needs and desires change, so do the institutions. Sometimes the change occurs due to conscious human design. Trial by a jury of one’s peers, for example, was a procedure consciously designed to maximize the justice of verdicts. This court procedure  weathered the test of time well enough to now be viewed as a cornerstone of Western jurisprudence. When institutions are responsive and grassroots in nature, they become such a natural part of human progress that they change in a spontaneous manner, as in the continuing evolution of language. Like the free market, they strongly encourage peaceful interaction because that is what benefits the vast majority of people.

The political system is the institution upon which libertarians focus. They commonly observe that politics ‘institutionalizes corruption’; political structures and procedures encourage bad results like the personal malfeasance of elected figures. A large reason for the corruption is that the political system is not responsive, not grassroots. As a static institution, it serves the embedded interests of an elite class rather than the dynamic ones of the average person. (The elite class consists of politicians and those with political pull.) What libertarians call ‘corruption’ is what the elites call ‘profit’. They have consciously sculpted the institution to increase their profits through such procedures as non-transparency.

In a sense, the embedded corruption of politics is good news for libertarians because it spotlights a basic truth about institutions. They can promote liberty or statism depending upon their structure, procedures and the embedded incentives. The Founding Fathers knew this. For example, they attempted to limit the government by constructing a tripartite system of checks and balances designed to prevent the centralization of power. The Bill of Rights created incentives toward liberty by laying down  societal ground rules to be upheld by the Supreme Court. (Whether the best intentions of the Founding Fathers were doomed to defeat by the inherent nature of politics is debatable.)

The specific structures and procedures of any institution will determine the results it produces. As long as the procedures are followed, the motives of those participating in the institution are irrelevant. Elsewhere, I offered the example of a man who works in a candy factory with the intention of producing canned tuna. As long as he follows the workplace rules and procedures, however, he will produce candy. A police officer may want to promote libertarian justice but as long as he enforces the laws of a totalitarian state, he will produce injustice.

Equally, as long as everyone respects the rules of the free market, it will function as a mechanism of peace and prosperity even if some of its participants are ill intentioned human beings. You may buy goods from a man whom you would never allow into your home; he can detest your religion or skin color even as money peacefully changes hands. As long as the rules of the free market are observed, freedom itself is served.

The burning question now becomes: how do we construct institutions that encourage liberty?


There are two answers on how to construct freedom-oriented institutions. The first: do not to construct them at all. Allow them to evolve through the spontaneous interaction of individuals pursuing their own self-interest. This is how free markets function, families are created, free speech rings out… Many  institutions require merely to be unobstructed.

But other institutions require some design beyond the "anything that is peaceful" rule. For example, a court system requires procedures of justice such as "innocent until proven guilty." And, so, the second answer to designing institutions is: do so in as  minimal a manner as possible and only to promote individual rights.

America’s rugged individualism has been called the ‘soul’ of its character. America needs its soul back.
Wendy McElroy is Author, lecturer, and freelance writer, and a senior associate of the Laissez Faire Club.

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